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How the House Speaker election rules could let conservatives embarrass John Boehner

John Boehner during the opening session of the House of Representatives in 2013.
John Boehner during the opening session of the House of Representatives in 2013.
Mark Wilson / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Today, the new House of Representatives will elect its Speaker. While John Boehner is extremely likely to win the post, there may be some last-minute drama from conservatives unhappy with his leadership. Two challengers, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Ted Yoho (R-FL), have announced their candidacies, though neither of them is expected to win much support. But under House rules, if enough people don't affirmatively vote for Boehner, the voting will proceed to a second round.

So here's a guide to how, exactly, the House elects its Speaker — and what you might see happen today:

  1. All elected members of the House get to vote, and the votes are public. This is in contrast to party leadership elections, in which each party gathers behind closed doors to choose its own leaders. The members typically vote one by one, in alphabetical order by last name, in the House chamber.
  2. Members can vote for anyone. The person a House member votes for doesn't have to be officially running for Speaker, or even a member of Congress (though all Speakers have been). You can even vote for someone who has specifically said he or she won't serve — there's no official way for anyone to withdraw his or her name from consideration.
  3. To win, a candidate needs a majority of the votes cast. A plurality isn't enough. This means that if all 435 members of the House show up and vote, one candidate would need 218 votes to be elected Speaker. However, if some seats are vacant, or if some members don't show up or decide not to vote, slightly fewer votes would be necessary to win that majority. (Currently, there is one vacant seat, meaning that 218 votes would still be necessary if all members vote.)
  4. If no one person wins a majority of votes cast, there's another round of balloting. There's no process to winnow down the number of candidates. Another vote is simply taken. And if that round doesn't result in a winner, then there's another, and another, on and on indefinitely, unless...
  5. In the past, the House has sometimes changed its rules to allow a plurality winner. In 1849, the House took weeks to choose its Speaker, in 1855-56, it took months. Vote after vote was taken, but divisions over slavery and the strength of minor parties prevented any majority winner from emerging. Finally, in both cases, the House voted to change its rules so a candidate with a mere plurality would become Speaker. (In 1856, that plurality winner was elected on the 133rd ballot.)

What these rules mean for Boehner

With the minority party voting for its own Speaker candidate, the majority party actually needs a large supermajority of its own caucus to elect a candidate on the first ballot. That means a relatively small faction of the majority could conceivably withhold its votes and cause the frontrunner candidate to fall short.

That's what a small group of conservatives tried to do in January 2013. Though no one was officially challenging Boehner for Speaker, 11 Republicans voted for various other people (including Eric Cantor, Allen West, and former Comptroller General David Walker), and a twelfth voted "present." Boehner, however, picked up 220 of the 427 votes cast — 6 members of Congress didn't vote due to absence or choosing not to, and 2 seats were vacant. A few Democrats didn't vote for Nancy Pelosi, either. Here was the messy final tally:

House Speaker Vote 2013

If Boehner had fallen short on the first ballot, it would have been embarrassing for him, and required at least one more round of voting. But with the vast majority of Republicans on his side and unlikely to quickly abandon him — and no actual GOP candidate challenging him — he'd have been very likely to win eventually. There's no real danger that a Democrat would be elected Speaker, since their candidate would also need a majority.

As for the conservative challenge, it's highly likely that a few holdout conservatives would have eventually backed down, or that some sort of deal would have been reached (or both). However, some conservatives hoped a new candidate would declare a challenge after seeing Boehner's weakness on the first ballot.

Since the GOP increased its House majority in the 2014 elections, Boehner has even more of a cushion now than he did two years ago. He can now lose 28 Republican votes and still win a majority on the first ballot as long as the remaining 218 vote for him. (That assumes Boehner votes for himself, which the Speaker doesn't always do — Boehner didn't do it last time around.) 29 Republican defections, however, would force the balloting to a second round.

As of Monday evening, the Washington Post counted 11 Republicans who've confirmed they are voting against Boehner. So conservatives will need to nearly triple that number if they hope to prolong the contest. If they fail to do so, Boehner be named Speaker for his third term.