The elections of 1789, 1792, 1796, and 1800 proceeded under a “one elector, two votes” principle. Rather than distinguish between their presidential and vice-presidential preferences, electors cast two coequal votes. Per Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the top vote-getter would become president, and the runner-up would be his chief subordinate. Because Federalists couldn’t settle on one de facto vice-presidential candidate in 1796, Thomas Jefferson outpaced everyone but John Adams. And so our nation’s councils were dangerously divided in a period when there were enough perceived domestic security threats to keep a president occupied.
Jefferson unseated Adams in 1800, but his Democratic-Republican electors screwed up a plan to divert a single electoral vote from Aaron Burr, the presumed VP-to-be, to anyone else. (The Federalists at least remembered to make John Jay their honorary loser.) Jefferson understandably resented Burr’s opportunistic refusal to ask the House to elect Jefferson. The Twelfth Amendment, proposed in December 1803 and ratified in June 1804, thereafter required electors to cast separate ballots for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Because 1796 had demonstrated the enormous cost of a party’s failure to coalesce around a single running mate, what the Amendment really did was to prevent future coordination glitches among either party’s presidential electors.
It’s often said that the Framers hadn’t foreseen Jefferson-Burr debacles because they didn’t anticipate the growth of a party system. But Article II, Section 1 does explicitly provide for situations in which “there be more than one who have such Majority [of electoral votes], and have an equal Number of Votes.” 1800’s “unforeseen” tie was broken precisely as the Constitution required, even if the reason for the tie was a relatively recent development.
Anyway, here’s the 1800 Electoral Tally as it looked a little over a year ago: