Vice presidents and tie-breaking

This is oldish news, but then this never has been a news blog. (And the discussion continues in the comments!)

The week before last, the Vice President of Argentina, Julio Cobos, cast a vote in the Senate to break a tie on an important piece of legislation for President Cristina Kirchner. The vote was against the president’s declared preference on the bill.

I have no idea how common the provision for a VP to have a tiebreaking vote on legislation is in those countries that have a VP, let alone how often actual tiebreking votes occur. As I have argued before, the entire position of a vice presidency was one of the most poorly thought-out provisions in the original US constitution. Evidently most of the countries in Latin America that have a vice presidency have a similar tiebreaking provision, or at least Greg Weeks suggests that is the case. ((I wonder if such provisions exist even where the legislature is unicameral; and what about those countries that have more than one VP?))

It may be particularly rare for the VP to vote against the president, although it is not clear to me why we should expect the VP to always line up with the president, especially if the latter is unpopular and/or a constitutional lame-duck. Greg asks, “If you cannot control your own VP, then what does that say about leadership?” But I would ask, how should the president be able to control the vice president? Like the president, the VP is elected for a fixed term, and hence not institutionally subordinate to anyone. Unlike many presidents the vice president is almost always eligible to seek the presidency in the next election, and often ambitious. ((Kirchner, on the other hand, is eligible for reelection.)) Moreover, many VPs (though I do not know about Cobos) are selected from a rival wing of the president’s party or even from a different party.

It seems to me that, institutionally, we should not assume that VPs would necessarily cast their tiebreaking votes in favor of the president’s position on the item in question. In fact, if VP votes against the president are rare, I suspect it is simply a shortage of cases: VPs probably do not face many such opportunities to advertise their independence. But they might be expected to do so when given the chance, except in cases in which they really are well screened and handpicked by the president (which is the case, perhaps unusually, in the contemporary USA).

43 thoughts on “Vice presidents and tie-breaking

  1. I go only on my gut feeling, because I’ve not seen any data. But I would hypothesize that even if presidents feel the need to choose a VP from a different wing of their party, they would make the choice based on the assumption that the VP would vote with them. Assumptions, of course, can be wrong, but I doubt they are wrong very often in this type of situation.

    Is there research on VPs? I would tend to think it’s not a terribly publishable topic, but the Argentine case highlights the need for more knowledge.


  2. I doubt there is research on this. Not that there shouldn’t be.

    I would not disagree regarding the president’s (possible) assumption. I just don’t see why it should be assumed (so to speak) to be valid. It goes against the incentives, unless the VP’s access to his or her next job is controlled by those who want the president to succeed in the current term.

    OK, there is a hypothesis. Now all we need is data! (However, as I allude to above, I don’t think there would be much available.)


  3. For your hypothesis to be valid, we would have to assert that a VP would expect some future benefit from going against the president. Unless he/she did so for “pure” reasons unrelated to their future political position.

    This would mean either that a) the president’s position within the party is weak; or b) the VP is not from the president’s party, and the president is weak; but also that c) the VP wants political advancement. (Most do, but this is not a given).

    The Argentine case fits “b.” We do not yet know “c.” Any hypothesis would have to contend with why VPs who fit A or B do not go against the president which, I think, is the rule.


  4. In the U.S. it’s happened a fair bit. Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, and John Nance Garner, at least, have set themselves in opposition to the present, and likely either voted against the President or would have done so given the chance – I’m not sure of the specifics, although I’m fairly sure that Jefferson and Calhoun, at least, voted against their president (Calhoun possibly against both his presidents).

    But I think Garner was the last VP to really set himself up in opposition to his president.


  5. In some countries, the VP (like the Lieut Governors of many US States) is elected in a separate race from the President, not on the same ticket.

    Especially (though not only) where plurality voting is used in a multi-contender race, this may quite possibly see bitter political rivals elected at the same poll. This explains, for example, why Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was elected Philippines VP on the same day in 1998 as President Joseph Estrada, who represented a rival party. (Interestingly, as well as serving as Veep, Arroyo was also appointed by Estrada as his Secretary of Social Welfare and Development, until she resigned to join the movement to impeach him).

    Incidentally, I recall some US pundit in 1988 predicting that, if Dukakis were elected President, VP Lloyd Bentsen would (assuming his past voting record didn’t radically change) be using his casting vote against the Administration on several crucial issues if the Senate were tied.

    I suspect that, in a situation with a very unpopular, lame-duck President, the Veep may use this to present a “same but different” image if s/he intends to seek the Presidency next election.


  6. I think the Philippines remains the only country where the VP is elected separately (although, in an exceptional circumstance, Paraguay did have a VP election but not a presidential elections some years ago, if I recall correctly). Tom is correct about the analog in some US states, including California.

    Back to Greg’s comments, sure, I would expect parties to vet their VP candidates pretty carefully and minimize potential for conflict. However, my point was that the institutional separation of the two officials–even when they are elected as a team–places numerous obstacles to making party control work. (Or presidential control of the VP, if you prefer, in this case.) And because tie votes can’t be expected to be very common, my guess is that loyalty to the president (or party) when such votes occur is rather far down the list of priorities in VP selection.

    Institutional separation creates lots of obstacles in the path of parties controlling presidents, too–something I am currently writing a book about. Alas, there is nothing about veeps in that book, but by analogy, control of the VP should be a challenge, too. I could imagine a scenario in which parties avoid choosing ambitious politicians for the VP slot, because they want someone who unites the party and ‘balances’ a presidential candidate who may be chosen for his or her above-party appeal. However, to the extent that is the case, it increases rather than decreases the risk of the president and the VP disagreeing on policy. (And this scenario assumes the two are from the same party, which as I noted in the original planting, is often not the case. It also assumes they are elected on the same ticket, which Tom reminds us is sometimes not the case, either.)

    Basically, I am simply saying that my default expectation is not of VP fealty to the president. I am ‘agnostic’ about the empirics. It is, indeed, an empirical question.


  7. On the question of ambition, the data for the aforementioned book show that only 9% of presidents in ”pure’ presidential systems are former vice presidents.

    I am rather surprised it is that low. Of course, this includes presidential systems in which there is no vice presidency, so it is somewhat artificially low. Still, it isn’t as though it would rise to even a fifth of them if we isolated those that have the veep position.

    In any event, as I suggested in the preceding comment (but contrary to my original suggestion), non-ambitious VPs might actually be inclined to clash with presidents more often than ambitious ones.

    (This is from a quite large sample–practically the universe of cases. About 150 presidents in pure presidential democracies since 1945.)


  8. I’d be interested in knowing how many VP’s ran for president after their time as VP, not just those who won. That might be a better measure of ambition.


  9. boz, so would I, but that’s not what the book is about, so, alas, no data on losers.

    However, I do not think it would change the picture much. Even if we found that (to make a number up), 25% of presidents’ losing successor candidates were their VPs, it would not exactly show that the vice presidency is a good place to park for a few years if you are ambitious.


  10. Bolivia (?) used to have a VP elected by the legislature every 2 years, alongside a President directly elected for 4 years. Not quite the same but, as MSS notes, quite a few US States elect the LG (and other Cabinet-level exec heads) separately. With plurality voting, this can lead to different results even with the same voter preferences. (Just as US Congressional races in 1992 suggest what would have been, in Australian parlance, the Bush-Clinton “two-party preferred” vote had Perot been eliminated and his preferences transferred).

    Re presidential systems without a VP: I would be interested in seeing stats on how often the Prime Minister (if there is one) succeeds to the Presidency (vide Pompidou and Chirac), especially in those premier-presidential systems where (a) the president has a real discretion in choosing the PM (eg, weak or multiple parties in Leg; power to end cohabitation by early dissolution; etc).

    Are there any that have followed De Gaulle’s failed proposal to have the PM serve as Acting President between a vacancy and a new election? Most I know of give the interim job to the parliamentary speaker instead of (Germany, Greece, France) or as well as (Austria) the PM.


  11. More than 20% of presidents in premier-presidential systems appear to be former PMs.*

    There are several presidential systems without a VP (and hence no PM, either, as I am referring to ‘pure’ presidential systems now)–Chile and Mexico, for example.

    Regarding Bolivia, under the 1967 constitution and subsequent reforms, the president is elected directly only if a party wins a majority of the vote.** Otherwise, the congress selects (from the top 2, formerly top 3). I recall the rule being similar for the VP. But perhaps, Tom, you are referring to an earlier period.

    * I say “appear to be” because the data are not broken down precisely in this way, but I am reasonably confident of the answer. (For president-parliamentary systems–i.e. those semi-presidential systems in which the president has clear constitutional authority to dismiss the PM–it is only 1%.) It is also worth noting that this refers only to presidents who were elected, not those who took the position through succession but were never subsequently elected in their own right.

    ** Technically, there is no separate presidential election. The presidential ballot is fused with the party-list vote for congress.


  12. It occurs to me that Tom might have been thinking of the old designado in Colombia. The 1991 constitution reestablished the vice presidency, elected on a joint ticket. I recall at the time there was a fair amount of controversy, because of some historical cases of presidential-VP conflict from an earlier period when there had been a veep.


  13. I defer to MSS on anything involving these sorts of details. His memory trumps mine. Unfortunately, hard to frame Wikipedia/ Google searchh terms for these sorts of details, and they’re often the sort that don’t make it into Wikipedia. (The typical entry will just say something vague like “The President and Vice-President are elected by the people for a four-year term”).

    At the opposite end from Mexico and Chile was the Republic of [South] Vietnam, which I believe had a President, a Vice-President and a Premier at once. I even had some idea the Pr and VP were elected separately. (On the other hand, SVN’s Senate went the opposite direction – 30 seats of 60 per election – the 3 party slates with the most votes got 10 seats each. Ticket-voting on steroids!).

    I assume the omission of a VP was a deliberate attempt to avoid in-fighting at the top of the executive? (as occurred in the US before the 12th Amendment).


  14. The line of succession in Namibia is the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, then a person appointed by the Cabinet. Namibia is a reasonably strong presidential system. Although the government is answerable to the national assembly, there is a mutual suicide provision by which either president or national assembly can force an election, but have to face election themselves if they do so.


  15. I just want to know that who was the most educated candidate in elections for the post of president and what number of candidates have been from military background?


  16. A President, a Vice-President and a Premier at once…

    As is the case in Bulgaria (where the premier is the much more important executive than the president, let alone the VP!), among others. And then there is Peru, which has a President, a premier (who can be removed by a parliamentary vote of no confidence), and two vice presidents!


  17. Greg has a follow up regarding Cobos, and a reiteration of his disagreement with my theoretical reason for why Cobos’s vote against the president should not surprise us.

    I respond at his place (Two Weeks Notice):

    My argument is simple and based on neo-Madisonian theory: It is hard enough for presidents and their parties to control one another. Their incentives are institutionally misaligned. Therefore, because VPs are probably not usually chosen for their loyalty to the presidential candidate (ticket balance, etc.), and because there are few ex-post sanctions once elected, the chances that the president and VP will remain aligned (if indeed they ever were) are scant.

    The basic neo-Mad point is the theme of my next book. But there is nothing in there on veeps. But I sense at least a paper some day!


  18. Peru wins the “Late Roman Republic Award for Superabundance of Highest-Level Executive Offices”.

    (India, of course, has a VP as well as President and PM, but none are directly elected.)


  19. This may just be a wrench in the works (and I apologize for coming to the discussion late). But what about other sources of VP power? Influence, of course, comes to mind. But another does, too: the position of interim president.

    In Bolivia, if the president is abroad, the vice president becomes acting head of state—w/ all the powers that come w/ that. Theoretically, he/she could veto or sign a bill, in opposition to the president’s wishes. I’m not sure how widespread that constitutional provision is, but it’s there.

    It’s also relevant in Bolivia for another reason: there is no constitutional provision for selecting a new vice president. When Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency in 2003, the vp office remained vacant. The next person in the line of succession was Hormando Vaca Diez (pres of the Senate) of MIR (an ally of MNR and the other “systemic” parties). On those occasions that Mesa was abroad, he was able to pass & sign legislation, since he was head of state.


  20. [Interesting techie point: draft 2 of my comment is here, but draft 1 is fossilised in the “Propagation” sidebar.]


  21. Whenever the question of a VP acting as President comes up, I think of Mike Curb, the (Republican) Lt. Gov. of California during one of (Democratic) Gov. Jerry Brown’s terms. He delighted Republicans by never missing a chance to do something gubernatorial during Brown’s many absences promoting himself, hanging out with Linda Ronstadt, and whatever else he did while not in the state.


  22. Just to add a note of Australian eccentricity, the temporary successor to the governor-general is the senior state governor. Until the election of the Rudd government this generally meant the administrator (acting gg) was an appointee, at state level, of the opposition at federal level,


  23. To add to point 22, there are a few Latin American countries where the president officially hands over power to the VP when he/she leaves the country. I remember it was an issue in Ecuador recently when the president was out of the country and a member of his coalition decided to pick a political fight with the VP, who was the acting president at the moment.

    Just another variable to throw into the mix.


  24. In Australian States, furthermore, the acting State Governor is traditionally the Chief Justice of the State’s supreme court.

    However, this sometimes leads to perceived conflicts of interest if the Acting Governor gives Royal Assent to a Bill and the validity, or interpretation, of that Act is later an issue before the supreme court. Some parties have argued that the CJ should recuse h/self in such cases. Customarily, these demands were rejected on the grounds that a Vice-Regal representative signing a bill into law does not – unlike a US President or Governor – indicate any personal or political support for its contents.

    However, in the last decade the federal High Court become more sensitive to the requirement that State courts must observe the strict separation of judicial from legislative/ executive power that applies to federal courts – because State courts can be given federal jurisdiction by the Commonwealth Parliament. (But the stricter standard still applies even when State courts are exercising purely State jurisdiction).


  25. To add to point 25, I’d suspect it’s actually the standard pattern for a deputy to become acting president or prime minister when the chief executive is out of the country.

    There’s a recurrent meme in US media where the president is for some reason prevented from executing the office and it is treated as almost a constitutional crisis for an acting president to be named. That may well be specific to the US. I actually had to explain it to a friend once. Their attitude was ‘What’s all the drama?’


  26. “Doonesbury” had an arc of cartoons c. 1987 mocking then-VP George HW Bush’s “highly successful” Acting Presidency during the six or eight hours that Ronald Reagan was under an[a]esthesia for an operation. (“No countries were lost to Communism during my Acting Presidency!”).


  27. Incidentally a mark of the weirdness that happens in Commonwealth realms, the Royal Powers Act 1953 had to be passed to make sure that the Queen, our ceremonial head of state, could exercise her own powers in Australia despite them being vested in the governor-general.


  28. To answer Greg Week’s question (#30): It’s not quite like what Cobos did … but in October 2003, Carlos Mesa publicly repudiated Sánchez de Lozada, but didn’t resign as VP. The move stripped away GSL’s middle-class support and paved the road for his resignation … followed by Mesa taking the presidential seat. It’s likely that GSL would have resigned anyhow, of course.


  29. To expand on Miguel’s example, it might be interesting to take the universe of VP’s who replaced presidents kicked out of office early (either by forced resignation or impeachment). It would be a short and finite list that could probably make for some important case studies of VP actions at critical moments (rather than their usual boring and uneventful jobs).

    That universe of data might give some insights into Cobos’ rejection of the Kirchners.

    (It may also be helpful to find the VPs who resigned alongside their presidents, or in other words, went down with the ship.)


  30. Boz has an interesting idea. Ecuador has at least two recent cases (I think) where VPs replaced presidents, either after a coup or a forced resignation. And Paraguay has the interesting case where a president tried to assassinate the VP.


  31. The case Miguel mentions in Paraguay is intriguing in terms of Pres-VP relationships. The president didn’t try to assassinate the VP, but the president’s buddy’s thugs actually did kill him. This is clearly a case in which the VP, Luis Argana, actively sought to undermine the president, Luiz Gonzalez Macchi. At base, this was an intra-party factional split – Argana was the head of one faction, Lino Oviedo was (de facto) the head of the other faction – but he was in jail, using LGM as his tool, because of his involvement in a coup attempt a few years before.


  32. Ooops, got the name of the incumbent president wrong – it was Raul Cubas Grau. LGM took over as president after Argana was assassinated, which prompted Cubas Grau to resign.


  33. I was beginning to think I had dreamt that VP-only election that I alluded to above in Paraguay. But it really happened:

    Nohlen’s encyclopedia lists an election for VP only on Aug. 13, 2000.

    Julio Cesar Franco defeated Felix Argana, 49.6-48.8. Turnout was 61%. Not bad for just a veep!


  34. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  35. Interesting “Explainer” piece in Slate on what happens if a US State Governor does, but the State’s Attorney-General (if separately elected) does not (or vice versa), want to challenge an Act of Congress in the Supreme Court.

    In Australia, where the A-G is basically the Justice Minister and a partisan member of Cabinet (to the extent that our courts have started to gingerly reconsider the common-law’s traditional reluctance to give Joe Citizen standing to sue to enforce a public law duty, a reluctance that was based on the assumption that the A-G would impartially uphold the public interest against the executive), these sorts of splits are hard to imagine… although now that the Cwlth and most States have created a separate position of Director of Public Prosecutions to handle the Harvey Dent stuff a-politically, one does see DPPs (Nick Cowdery in NSW, Bernard Bongiorno in Victoria) sparring with their Premier over the same sorts of a issues where a US State A-G might clash with their Governor.

    I note that the US Const doesn’t actually use the term “Governor” (I understand several States had “Presidents” in 1788, or at later admission, eg Delaware and Texas respectively) but refers rather to “the Executive [authority] thereof”, which I guess means the Supremes would defer to whichever official was designated in that role by the State Const (or, for purposes like certifying Presidential Electors, by Federal Act) for that particular purpose (and would probably defer to the State Supreme Court’s interpretation in the first case).

    The Aust Const does talk about the “Governor” of each State but then helpfully defines this broadly to mean whichever official is top dog (presumably to cover an Administrator or Lieut Gov – as I noted above, traditionally the State Chief Justice – filling in).

    As Alan noted, the longest-serving State Governor fills in while the federal Governor-General is temporarily absent or vacant. When Archbishop Peter Hollingworth resigned early in 2005, this meant Sir Guy Green of Tasmania (the smallest State) was next in line to act as Administrator of the Commonwealth (which in turn meant the Tasmanian CJ stood in as Acting Governor).

    The 1998-99 Australian Republic proposal would have constitutionalised this convention (ie not created a Vice-Presidency), but grafted it on to the utterly daft idea – cooked up over many chardonnays at the Feb 1998 “ConCon” in Canberra (yeah, good riddance, Malcolm Turnbull: what were you thinking) – that the PM (an official hitherto unmentioned in the Aust Const) should have power to unilaterally remove the President from office. The House of Reps would have to ratify any such removal, but its refusal would have led to a dissolution, not reinstatement of the sacked President. This would have left Australia constitutionally unique as requiring a tougher procedure to choose a head of state (2/3 of Parliament on nomination by PM and Opposition Leader) than to amove the same (unilateral decree of PM). Anyway, the proposed Const amendment would have let the PM likewise strike off State Governors’ names from the roster of potential Acting Presidents.


  36. “… When he is probed, [Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Jon] Stanhope concedes that his is not an easy job. “In Hobart and Darwin, comparable in size to Canberra, you have a premier or chief minister, you have a governor or an administrator, and you have a lord mayor in each city. They split their functions, share their duties. Here, I am all of those things combined. It means, inevitably, that I disappoint some people.”

    On top of that, the size of the ACT Assembly means that workloads are punishing. Stanhope, for example, is not just the chief minister but also holds the portfolios of transport, territory and municipal services, business and economic development, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, and the arts and heritage…’

    – Norman Abjorensen, “Accidental politician: Although he’s largely unknown outside the ACT, Jon Stanhope is one of Australia’s most intriguing political figures,” Inside Story – Current Affairs and Culture (16 June 2010).


  37. One Australian journalist doesn’t quite get this whole “Westminster System” deal, and/or nodded off in Politics 101 when the names “Frank Forde” and “Black Jack McEwen” were mentioned:
    “This man is one heartbeat away from the top job. Will voters rejoyce? He was elected to lead the Nationals in a late-night vote. This is how Barnaby became the nation’s second-most powerful MP.”
    The New Daily (Friday, 12 February 2016). URL:
    For outsiders: Barnaby Joyce has been elected as the National Party leader, making him Deputy Prime Minister. (His predecessor, Warren Truss, will be remembered by history for getting fictitiously punched in a Sydney “bar” – ie, pub – by Sawyer in “Lost”: However, should Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull go under a bus, the next Prime Minister (in the long term) will not be Barnaby Joyce. It may not even be Julie Bishop, the Liberals’ Deputy Leader, or Scott Morrison, the Liberal Treasurer (even though in Australia the Treasurer is traditionally seen as the number #2 player behind the Prime Minister). It will be open to the party room and there could very well be some John Gorton-like surprise. Barnaby no more gets to succeed to the Prime Ministership of Australia than the Turkish Cypriot Vice-President would get to succeed to the presidency of Cyprus.


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