The Seven Closest Presidential Elections in U.S. History

1. 1800: 73–73

John Adams, who won the Election of 1796, and Thomas Jefferson, who was runner-up, squabbled for four years, and the Election of 1800 was essentially a rerun of the previous election. The circumstances were a bit different in that one of the main issues was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which proved very unpopular with much of the country and provided the Democratic-Republicans with a prime opportunity to charge the Federalists with being "Monarchists." A bitter split between Alexander Hamilton and Adams didn't help the Federalist cause (and certainly helped Jefferson's efforts.)

The result of Adams vs. Jefferson 2 was a reverse of the first, with Jefferson besting Adams in the electoral vote, 73 to 65. The problem for Jefferson was that among the other three candidates who stood for President was his fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr. Burr had been a candidate in 1796 as well but had finished well back in the electoral tally. This time around, Burr had more support. In fact, both Jefferson and Burr received exactly the same number of votes. They couldn't both be President.

The Constitution provided for this:

“The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the President. But in chusing [sic] the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse [sic] from them by Ballot the Vice President."
So to the House it went. The country comprised 16 states at the time, and the President would be the candidate who got the vote of nine of those 16 states. Federalists controlled half of the state delegations, but those Representatives considered Jefferson, as the de facto leader of the opposition party, the one to defeat. Democratic-Republicans controlled the other eight states, and all of those delegations voted for Jefferson, since it seemed to everyone but Aaron Burr that Jefferson was intended to be the top man for the job. The deliberations continued for six days, during which 35 straight ballots showed eight votes for Jefferson and eight votes for Burr. Jefferson got some unexpected help from his arch-enemy, Alexander Hamilton, who chose to back Jefferson as the better of what he saw as two bad choices. Hamilton's efforts paid off as the state delegations of Maryland and Vermont changed their preference to Jefferson, giving him 10 votes and the presidency.

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David White