ANSWER: It has happened three times. The first was the 1800 election, which revealed a serious flaw in the US Constitution. Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes.
The original wording of the Constitution didn’t distinguish between electoral votes for president and vice president, so the decision had to be made in the House of Representatives where each state had one vote.
The voting went on for several days, and in the first 35 ballots, Jefferson had the support of 8 states while Burr had 6. 9 states were needed to win and Jefferson obtained that on the 36th ballot. He would be the next president and Aaron Burr was declared vice president.
The dispute led to ratification of the 12th Amendment, which changed the way the electoral college functioned. The only time the amendment was used was 1824.
That year Andrew Jackson received a plurality, but not a majority, of electoral votes cast. Jackson received 99 electoral votes, John Quincy Adams 84, William H. Crawford 41 and Henry Clay 37.
All the candidates were members of the same party and each had fallen short of the 131 votes necessary to win. The election was again thrown to the House.
According to the 12th Amendment, the House had to choose the president out of the top 3 candidates. This meant Clay was eliminated and he endorsed Adams.
Crawford’s poor health following a stroke made his election unlikely. Because Adams later named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson’s supporters claimed there was a “corrupt bargain.”
It came down to the vote of single representative from upstate New York, Stephen van Rensselaer III, the founder of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Once again, each state was given one-vote, and Adams had the support of twelve states, one short of what was needed.
When Congressman van Rensselaer entered the Chamber that day, he was ushered into the office of Speaker Henry Clay, who along with Daniel Webster tried to persuade him to vote for Adams. They were unsuccessful, but the combination of the best persuaders in American history may have had an effect.
Before voting, van Rensselaer bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes the first thing he saw on the floor was a slip of paper with Adams’ name on it. Accepting it is a sign from God, he put the slip into the ballot box. Adams carried New York by one vote, and it was the final state needed for his election.
The election of 1876 saw the highest voter turnout in U.S. history, a whopping 82 percent. The nation was enduring a severe depression. Because of the economy, Democrats won a 74 seat majority in the House during the 1874 off year election, but the GOP would reduced that to just 9 seats two years later.
Gov. Samuel Tilden (D-NY) won the popular vote, and Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes (R-OH) initially conceded.
Then the electoral votes in three states were disputed. A single electoral vote decided the outcome in Hayes’ favor. A Democratic-controlled Congress had admitted Colorado in time to participate in the presidential election, when without its votes, Tilden would have won.
The story is told in “By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876” by Michael Holt