How the US House of Representatives election could end in chaos

Capitol Hill residents often use shorthand and say the threshold to become Speaker is 218 votes or a simple majority.


But it’s not that simple: House precedents dictate that electing a speaker requires a majority of the votes cast by members “for a named person.”

That means McCarthy could still win the speakership even if he doesn’t get to 218 votes, by convincing lawmakers who don’t want to vote for him to instead vote “present” or miss the vote altogether.

That’s not uncommon. In 2015, John Boehner was elected speaker with 216 votes, as was Nancy Pelosi in 2021.

If McCarthy is unable to win the votes needed to become Speaker, lawmakers would move to a second ballot – meaning it would have to hold another roll-call vote. The last time this happened was in 1923, when the Speaker was elected after nine ballots and feverish behind-the-scenes rounds.

What happens if McCarthy falls short?

Because it is so rare that more than one vote is required for a speaker election, there is little modern precedent to sort out the resulting chaos. However, some clear options are available to the legislator.

If McCarthy failed to win the Speaker’s gavel on the first ballot, he and his allies would most likely start horse-trading with rebellious lawmakers on the floor or in the dressing room to try to win their support. Some Republicans have privately noted that it could become apparent more quickly than usual if McCarthy came up short on the first ballot, as a number of lawmakers who have promised to oppose him are called out early in the alphabetical vote.

At the same time, other lawmakers could throw their hats in the ring as potential consensus candidates. Or Republican grassroots members might try to nominate one of their peers for the nomination if it seems flattery will not win McCarthy the votes he needs.

A legislature could offer a solution to the electoral process, e.g. B. Lowering the voting threshold required to become Speaker and confirming a majority winner.

Lawmakers could also seek a break in voting and a motion for an adjournment. This would require the approval of a majority in the House of Representatives: 218 votes.

Unless they adjourn, lawmakers must vote until a speaker is elected.

A standstill can lead to many more rounds of voting.

Of the more than 120 times the House of Representatives has elected a new Speaker since 1789, there have only been 14 cases where the process required multiple votes, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The lengthy elevation of Banks to Speaker – a process that began in 1855 and ended in 1856 – has been likened by the House Historian’s office to a “recurring nightmare”.

The first vote began on a Monday in December 1855, with the legislature holding four votes that day. According to the bureau, there were “five more on Tuesday, six more on Wednesday, another six on Thursday, six more on Friday and six more on Saturday.”

Banks was not elected until early February 1856, a time when no other congressional business was being conducted. The track included a three-hour question-and-answer session for speaker candidates on the spread of slavery in the western territories.

The speaker race ended only after lawmakers, no doubt exhausted from their marathon voting sessions, passed a resolution creating a majority winner. Banks won with just 103 votes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. How the US House of Representatives election could end in chaos

Callan Tansill

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