The 12th Amendment and the demise of Americans Elect

Americans Elect, the group promoting a centrist, third-party choice for president that would be nominated through an online convention, has officially called it quits.

Americans Elect had issued a statement earlier this week that no candidate, including top picks like Ron Paul, had gained enough support to qualify for the group’s online convention slated for June.

Americans Elect so far

Americans Elect had gained ballot access in 29 states–an impressive feat for a third party. It won the SXSW 2012 People’s Choice Award.

It also stirred a generous share of skepticism, primarily about the lack of transparency about its funders and nominating process. The most thorough criticisms and concerns have been detailed at Mother Jones, Salon, Irregular Times, and AE Transparency; Americans Elect’s tax-exempt status has also been challenged in a lawsuit.

What went wrong

Already, there are several compelling pathographies. According to Slate‘s David Weigel, Americans Elect’s downfall is due to its pointless secrecy, its misunderstanding of the political center, and its misplaced focus on the presidency; according to Tech President‘s David Karpf, the group fell prey to the “Field of Dreams” fallacy–they built it, but nobody came.

But if the group’s third-party efforts do come to fruition, either in this election cycle or the next, here’s something it should reconsider: its so-called “bipartisan pledge.” It says this:

To ensure the winning ticket is committed to working together across party lines, finalist candidates are required to choose a running mate from a party other than their own. With Americans Elect, voters will nominate a nonpartisan ticket that puts country before party, and American interests before special interests.

Nice idea, right? With many Americans disillusioned by the gridlock in Washington–and possibly interested in a third-party option–a bipartisan ticket for the White House sounds like… just the ticket.

But not so fast. The thing is, we’ve tried the whole bipartisan ticket thing before. And it wasn’t pretty.

The first (and only) bipartisan ticket

The election of 1796 was our nation’s first truly contested election. (For the very first election, George Washington was elected by the Electoral College unanimously.) It was also the only election that resulted in a president and a vice president drawn from opposing tickets–John Adams from the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson from the Democratic-Republican Party.

How did it happen? Well, Article II, Section 1, Clause 3, of the Constitution prescribed that whoever received the most electoral votes would become president, and whoever received the second-highest amount would become vice president–regardless of party affiliation. (Political parties, in fact, are never mentioned in the Constitution.)

Adams and Jefferson’s relationship was a complex one, and throughout their lives they alternated between friendship and rivalry. During the Adams presidency, their relationship was definitely a rivalry. They butted heads over states’ rights, tariffs, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and U.S. relations with Europe. They also adhered to conflicting philosophies–while Adams believed in a strong federal government, Jefferson favored stronger state governments.

By the time the Election of 1800 rolled around, the ideological clashes in the White House during the Adams-Jefferson administration led to a campaign characterized by bitter partisan debate, misinformation, and harsh personal attacks, giving rise to the negative campaign ad.

What’s more, once the Electoral College voted, there was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, a fellow Democratic-Republican. The House of Representatives was then forced to decide the vote. After failing to reach a majority several times, Alexander Hamilton stepped in and persuaded enough representatives to vote for Thomas Jefferson.

Lessons from the 12th Amendment

The difficulties of the clashing Adams-Jefferson administration in 1796 and the chaos of the Election of 1800 convinced Americans that the Electoral College system needed to be changed. Within just a few years, the 12th Amendment was approved, allowing electors in the Electoral College to cast a vote specifically for president and specifically for vice president.

Americans Elect’s proclaimed goal of bringing bipartisanship to the White House is admirable. But a bipartisanship ticket is a naive and misguided approach. Take a hint from the history books: If it didn’t work for two of our greatest Founding Fathers, don’t bet on it working today.

Holly Munson is a programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the assistant editor of Constitution Daily.

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