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Analysis | Voting for House Speaker doesn’t work the way you might think


On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) received some bad news. Rep. Ralph Norman (RS.C.) became the fifth member of the Republican caucus in the upcoming 118th Congress to announce skepticism about voting for McCarthy as speaker.

Republicans will have a majority in the House in January and will therefore have the option of choosing one of them to lead the chamber. But as the party’s majority becomes remarkably tight, the five-vote loss could put McCarthy below 218 votes in support of a speaker’s bid — that is, below the level that would constitute a majority of the chamber.

The good news for McCarthy? It may very well be that it doesn’t matter.

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Election of the Speaker of the Chamber is governed by different rules than other votes in the Chamber. For example, legislators cast votes for specific individuals, either a person nominated by party elections or literally someone else. In the 2019 speaker election, Joe Biden got a vote despite not only not serving in the House, but not serving in any public office at all. Rep. Anthony Brindisi (DN.Y.) said “Joseph Biden” and his vote was recorded.

In other ways, however, the elections follow normal rules. It is not the case that the chairman must receive the support of a majority of the chamber, any more than 218 votes are required for a legislative vote. Instead, the speaker simply needs to secure a majority of votes cast “for a person by name,” such as voting for “Joseph Biden.” So if 20 lawmakers decided not to vote at all or to vote “present,” which is not a name, only 208 votes out of 415 votes cast would be needed to elect a speaker. (There have also been cases where the House could not agree on a Speaker, so they simply voted to allow a Speaker multitude number of votes cast to determine the speaker, although not recently.)

Imagine McCarthy’s majority comes out to, say, 222 Republicans. If Norman and the other GOP skeptics choose to vote “present” or abstain, McCarthy will only need 216 votes to be elected chairman — out of 217 other Republicans.

Similar situations have happened before. The House moved in 1929 to a permanent composition of 435 seats. Since then there have been 49 votes for the speaker, with the exception of two in which the speaker was elected by voting. Most, but not all of these votes were held at the start of a new Congress.

Here are the results, with the figure of 218 votes indicated.

You can see that in addition to the nominees from the two parties, there are many votes for individuals; we will come back to that.

But there have been four elections where the winner has received a majority of the votes cast, but fewer than 218 votes. That includes the election of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2021. Only 427 votes were cast for named individuals, meaning Pelosi needed 214 votes to be elected Speaker. She got 216.

Speakers’ votes used to be for people not nominated by either major party, for third party members of the House. In the 1930s, progressive legislators regularly garnered a handful of votes. However, in recent years there has been an explosion of protest votes – usually carefully orchestrated to avoid actually jeopardizing the path to the speakership of the major party candidate who ultimately wins. In 2019, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) five votes to speaker, but Pelosi was elected speaker anyway.

In other words, the question is not whether McCarthy has 218 votes. The issue is whether those legislators who don’t want to vote for him will vote for someone else, potentially forcing the speaker election into a second or third ballot. Or further; those speaker votes that settled for a majority followed dozens of votes that resulted in no one getting a majority.

The bigger question, really, is whether the legislators loudly protesting McCarthy’s leadership really want to block it or just hear the loud protests. We won’t know the answer to that until the votes are cast for the speaker.

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