During the nineteenth century mysterious lore enshrouded this vote count: something (or so rumor and recollection had it) had been amiss with the Georgia ballot that year, which was cast for Jefferson and Burr; and something in Jefferson's behavior during the formal count had been strange. The first report of a hitch appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, the Aurora, the day of the count. At "half past 3 o'clock, P.M.," the Aurora reported, the tellers (who were appointed by Congress to help Jefferson with the vote count) "declared there was some informality in the votes of Georgia, but believing them to be the true votes, reported them as such." The leading Republican paper of its era, the Aurora would be unlikely to invent a story that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jefferson's election. Its report was subsequently copied verbatim by newspapers of many different political leanings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Savannah.
Was something in fact wrong with the Georgia ballot? Was there a chance that it had been tampered with before reaching Jefferson?
Georgia was notorious for shady dealings. Many of its leading politicians had recently been bribed in a land deal. Jefferson would have known this, and would have had good reason to be suspicious if something about the Georgia ballot appeared amiss. Newspaper accounts from the time focused on the tellers' decision to ignore irregularities in the Georgia ballot. But the Constitution does not even mention the tellers, let alone give them any authority over such matters. It was up to the president of the Senate to determine what would happen next. Did Jefferson, then, ignore serious irregularities in the Georgia ballot when presiding over the vote count?
If he did, the implications for the 1800 election were significant: the loss of Georgia's four votes would have left Jefferson and Burr with only 69 votes each—and this would have made a big difference in the subsequent proceedings. As it then stood, the Constitution laid out two kinds of runoff. The first occurred when two tied first-place candidates each received votes from a majority of the electors; in that situation only the tied candidates would enter the runoff. The second occurred when the tied candidates failed to collect a majority of the votes; in this situation they had to compete in a runoff of the top five finishers from the original vote. In 1800 there were 138 electors voting—meaning that the magic number was 70. If Jefferson and Burr had dropped from 73 to 69 votes, then Jefferson would be competing not just with Burr but also with Adams, Pinckney, and Jay.
In the two-man runoff that actually occurred, the Federalists supported Burr because he was their only means of stopping Jefferson's election, not because he was their candidate of choice. (Under the Constitution each state casts a single vote in the runoff, as determined by a majority of its House delegation. The runoff continues until a candidate wins a majority of the states. Since there were sixteen states in the Union in 1800, nine votes were required to win.) As noted, Jefferson beat Burr on the thirty-sixth ballot. But a five-candidate runoff would have had a different dynamic. Under the most likely scenario the Federalist states would all have voted Federalist indefinitely, because their man Adams would still have been in the running, and the deadlock would have continued long past thirty-six ballots. It is likely that at some point Charles Pinckney, the Federalists' vice-presidential candidate, would have emerged as a compromise candidate palatable to the Republicans. Not only had Pinckney been a war hero during the Revolution and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but he was an avowed moderate, and had opposed his own party when it passed the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts, in 1798. Perhaps most important, he was a South Carolinian; this made him acceptable to many of Jefferson's supporters, the bulk of whom were from the South.