Voting for House speaker doesn’t work the way you might think


On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) got 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 come January, and therefore will have the opportunity to elect one of their own to lead the chamber. But with the party’s majority shaping up to be remarkably narrow, losing five votes might bring McCarthy below 218 votes in support of a speaker bid — which is to say below the level that would constitute a majority of the chamber.

The good news for McCarthy? It very well may not matter.

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Election of the speaker of the House is governed by different rules than other votes in the chamber. For example, legislators cast votes for specific individuals, either one nominated by party caucuses or literally anyone else. In the 2019 speaker election, Joe Biden received 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, though, the election follows normal rules. It’s not that the speaker must get the support of a majority of the chamber any more than any legislative vote requires 218 votes. Instead, the speaker simply needs to earn a majority of votes cast “for a person by name,” like voting “Joseph Biden.” So if 20 legislators decide not to vote at all or vote “present,” which is not a name, only 208 votes of the 415 votes cast would be needed for a speaker to be elected. (There have also been occasions in which the House could not reach agreement on a speaker, so they simply voted to allow a plurality of cast votes to determine the speaker, though not recently.)

Imagine that McCarthy’s majority lands at, say, 222 Republicans. If Norman and the other GOP skeptics choose to vote “present” or to abstain, McCarthy needs only 216 votes to be elected speaker — out of 217 other Republicans.

Similar situations have happened before. The House moved to a permanent 435-seat composition in 1929. Since then, there have been 49 votes for speaker, excluding two in which the speaker was chosen by voice vote. Most but not all of these votes were held at the beginning of a new Congress.

Here are the results, with the 218-vote mark indicated.

You can see that there are a lot of votes for people besides the two parties’ nominees; we’ll come back to that.

But there have been four elections in which the winner has received a majority of 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.

It used to be that speaker votes for people who weren’t nominated by one of the two major parties were for third-party members of the House. In the 1930s, Progressive legislators regularly earned a handful of votes. In recent years, though, there has been an explosion of protest votes — usually carefully orchestrated to avoid actually imperiling the path to the speakership of the major-party nominee who ends up winning. In 2019, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) received five votes for speaker, but Pelosi was elected speaker anyway.

In other words, the question is not whether McCarthy has 218 votes. It’s whether those legislators who don’t want to vote for him vote for someone else, potentially forcing the speaker election to a second or third ballot. Or further; those speaker votes that settled for a plurality 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 actually want to block it or just to be heard loudly protesting. We won’t know the answer to that until the votes for speaker are cast.

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