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Ask Civics 101: Could We Have A Stand-Alone Candidate For Vice President Of The United States?

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SARA PLOURDE
/
NHPR

Here's our listener question of the week: Can an individual run and win as a stand-alone candidate for vice president of the United States? 

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Submit it here! 

The short answer is yes. According to the Constitution, an individual can run and win as a stand-alone candidate for vice president of the United States. But it’s highly unlikely. To understand why, it’s important to summarize the electoral process for president.

The custom is for presidential candidates to choose their running mates for vice president of the United States. These candidates, both presidential and their vice-presidential picks, are nominated separately by their parties. Once nominated, these two candidates run together as a ticket, meaning whatever your presidential vote is, that vice-presidential candidate is part of the deal. In November, voters vote for one presidential ticket on their ballots (meaning a presidential and vice-presidential team). This popular vote is not the decider in the presidential election. When voters cast their ballots for the presidential ticket of their choice, they’re actually voting for a unique slate of electors (determined by the political parties in each state) who are pledged to vote for a particular presidential ticket. The popular vote of each state determines which slate of electors will cast their votes in the Electoral College, and it’s this vote that ultimately determines the winner of the presidential and vice-presidential election.

The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution outlines the Electoral College. Unlike the voters in the states, electors don’t vote for a presidential ticket. Instead, electors “...name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they...make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President….” These electors meet in their respective states and cast two separate ballots - one for president and one for vice president.

There’s nothing in the Constitution that prevents a stand-alone candidate from running for vice president. It’s theoretically possible that the electors chosen from each state could cast their distinct ballots for a stand-alone vice-presidential candidate. In such a hypothetical, if that stand-alone candidate won a majority (270) of distinct electoral votes and gained more than the other candidates on the party tickets, then they would become vice president of the United States.

Practically, however, this scenario is highly improbable. There are only two cases in which this could remotely be a possibility as things stand today, but both are extremely rare. One is a case where a presidential candidate runs without a running mate. If voters vote for this candidate, and the candidate’s pledged electors are chosen for the Electoral College, these electors would be constitutionally required to vote separately for a vice-presidential candidate, who, in this hypothetical, would most likely be a stand-alone candidate.

The other scenario is one in which electors vote for a stand-alone vice-presidential candidate, instead of voting for the candidate from the presidential ticket that they pledged to vote for and that their states’ voters selected. There have been a few inconsequential cases in which electors broke their pledges and voted contrary to their states’ voters. We call these faithless electors.

But this is rare, as the chosen electors almost always vote for the designated pair of candidates that they pledged to vote for and that the people of their states chose. This reality was reinforced by the Supreme Court, which ruled in Chiafalo v. Washington (2020) and Colorado Department of State v. Baca (2020) that states can punish faithless electors.

The fact that voters don’t vote separately for a presidential and a vice-presidential candidate remains the main practical roadblock preventing a stand-alone vice-presidential candidate from running and winning.

How the ballot appears to voters is entirely decided by each state in conversation with the political parties. Party bylaws and state regulations establish the current practice of merging the presidential and vice-presidential candidates onto a single ballot item. For this hypothetical to have any chance, presidential and vice-presidential candidates would have to be separated on the ballots that are given to voters. The Constitution wouldn’t prevent this, since it provides that the president and vice president be elected independently of one another by the Electoral College anyways. Federal law wouldn’t bar vice-presidential candidates from running alone, either.

If you'd like a quick refresher on the vice presidency itself, check out our latest Civics Short!

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