Back to the Future, Day 3

By Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III

We now have six speakership ballots, over two days, in the books. And we’re no closer to electing a Speaker of the House for the 118th Congress.

This is our third post (the other two being here and here) on the subject, based on our analysis of contentious speakership elections across US history, as detailed in our book, Fighting for the Speakership.

To reiterate, nothing can get done in the House until a Speaker is elected. Rules can’t be adopted. Committee slates can’t be approved. Staff can’t be paid. The House grounds to a halt, and by extension, the federal lawmaking apparatus. So, electing a Speaker is critical. At least if you want a House that is up to the task of governing.

At this point, it’s possible the Republicans stick with McCarthy as their speakership candidate. They could also regroup and move to another candidate – like Steve Scalise (LA), the GOP’s second in command in the House. Or possibly someone else.

But apart from continuing with the standard majority-rule balloting, what other options might be available? Two options have been floated in the Twittersphere today that we have previously written about.

The first is to vote by secret ballot, which was the practice in House officer elections until 1838, when it was abandoned in favor of voice voting. The secret ballot was especially helpful in bridging the regional divide – think slavery – because party members could rally behind a candidate who would best deliver on party matters, even if that candidate was from the wrong region. Abolitionists figured this out and agitated for voice voting, to smoke out the northerners who were supporting the election of southerners. This was first proposed in 1835 and not adopted until three years later.

We have opinions about secret ballot for Speaker in this case, but most of the talk has been about the second option, electing the Speaker by plurality vote. This happened twice in the past. The long, hard-fought speakership elections of 1849 (31st Congress) and 1855-56 (34th Congress) were both settled only after a plurality-rule was adopted.

In each case, the House adopted a motion (in fact, a resolution) that established the candidate who received the most votes would in fact win the speakership election. Both times, a majority of the House passed this plurality rule in the following form: three more regular (majority-rule) ballots would be had, and if a candidate didn’t receive a majority, a fourth ballot would be held and the largest vote-getter would be elected. (“Largest” is the word they used.)

Now, a plurality rule is a risky endeavor. In both 1849 and 1856, the two parties were closely divided, and on a final, plurality ballot, party leaders couldn’t be completely sure how dissenters would break. Indeed, in 1855, the Democratic Party was the minority, but became convinced they could put together enough votes to elect a Speaker under plurality. In the end, however, they were outflanked and lost.

Today, we think the plurality calculus is also tricky. Hakeem Jeffries (NY), the Democratic nominee, has won every plurality election to this point. Plurality seems a no-brainer for Democrats. On the other hand, plurality lowers the target that McCarthy has to hit, since no Republican is going to vote for Jeffries. With Jeffries stuck at 212 votes, all McCarthy needs is 213, which is roughly half the dissident faction he’s been dealing with.

That said, it’s hard to see why McCarthy would consider a plurality rule to be a Godsend. McCarthy has seen 20 stalwart defectors, only five of which are “Never Kevin” Republicans, led by Matt Gaetz (FL). It is these five who keep McCarthy from getting a majority. Still, for McCarthy to win under a plurality rule, he needs most of the other fifteen, who very well may not support him either. A plurality rule would simply move his job from lifting a two-ton boulder to lifting a one-ton boulder.

Another thing that hasn’t been factored into plurality voting among the plurality-curious is the behavior of dissident members once the rule has been adopted. Some have said that a plurality rule would force House members to vote for one of the two front-runners, as a type of Duverger’s Law for Speaker contests. However, that wasn’t the pattern in either 1849 or 1856, when 20 and 11 members, respectively, threw away their final votes for Speaker.

Some Democrats may be salivating at the thought of Jeffries becoming Speaker under a close plurality vote, but it’s not clear how that would be a benefit to the party. A Jeffries speakership would free up the entire Republican caucus, both Never and Only Kevins, to obstruct. They have a majority of the chamber, after all. The Speaker isn’t given a magic wand.

In both 1849 and 1856, it took the House weeks to get to the point of throwing in the towel and approving plurality voting. We’re a long way from that. At present, the most likely outcome is still a Republican Speaker elected by majority vote, but history also tells us that time is running out for Kevin McCarthy.


  • Jeff Jenkins

    Jeffery A. Jenkins is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law, Maria B. Crutcher Professor of Citizenship and Democratic Values, and Director of the Political Institutions and Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative at the University of Southern California. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy (JPIPE) and the Journal of Historical Political Economy (JHPE). He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Politics for six years (2015-2020).

  • Charles Stewart III

    Charles Stewart III is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, where he has taught since 1985, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His research and teaching areas include congressional politics, elections, and American political development. Here is also the founding director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. Since 2001, Professor Stewart has been a member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, a leading research effort that applies scientific analysis to questions about election technology, election administration, and election reform. He is currently the MIT director of the project.

One thought on “Back to the Future, Day 3

  1. That’s very interesting.
    The discussion about secret or public vote recalls the intellectual debate at about the same time between the English utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and his heterodox disciple John Stuart Mill: Bentham was in favor of secret voting to prevent harassment of voters, while Mill, more optimistic about human nature, supported the public vote to make people reveal their sincere preferences. Your story of the House in the 1830s seems to have favored sincere vote with a secret ballot, so perhaps leaning on Bentham’s side.
    It’s also interesting the procedure of three rounds by majority and if no candidate gets it, then by plurality. It’s what the Conclave to elect the Pope of the Catholic Church adopted twenty-some years ago, by John Paul II’s decree, to prevent unending lockdowns of the cardinals voting again and again without a result. It worked. Ratzinger (the just deceased Benedict XVI) was elected on the second day after a big dispersion of votes on the first day, when the cardinals anticipated that he would win anyway by plurality and better to leave the lockdown earlier than later.
    Josep Colomer
    editor of Handbook of Electoral System Choice (Palgrave-Macmillan)

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