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What if the election is a tie?

An Electoral College tie would produce an awkward Mitt Romney-Joe Biden administration.
Last modified: 6 Nov 2012 18:09

The US electoral system has many peculiarities. Votes for president and vice president are not tallied on a nationwide basis. Instead there are essentially fifty-one individual contests, involving fifty states and the District of Columbia. A candidate who wins the most votes in a particular state collects that state’s electoral votes—a number that is based on the number of congressional districts in the state, plus two. The extra two corresponds to each state’s pair of senators.

For example, California, the country’s most populous state, has 53 members of the House of Representatives and two senators, so therefore has 55 electoral votes. The least populous state is Wyoming, with just one representative and two senators, and therefore three electoral votes.

This arcane system was devised as part of the negotiations that created the United States back in the late 18th century, and has been tinkered with at various times since then. The story of these negotiations would occupy more time than most readers would likely care to spare. The main point, however, is that it takes 270 or more of the 538 total electoral votes in order for a candidate to win the White House.

Usually, this system works well enough so that the popular vote and the electoral vote more or less match, representing the will of all the voters across the country. Except when it doesn’t.

Most people remember the controversy, court cases, hanging chads and general ridiculousness of the 2000 election, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by 500,000 votes but became president anyway because he won in the Electoral College. That’s happened two other times earlier in US history: Rutherford B Hayes became President in 1876 with 47 per cent of the popular vote versus Samuel Tilden’s 51 per cent; and in 1888 Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote to Grover Cleveland by 90,000 votes.

It’s an odd, unique, and, many critics say, not very democratic system. But the Electoral College can produce even weirder results. Twice in US history, in 1800 and 1824 the Electoral College race has resulted in a tie score.

Analysts say its very unlikely that the election of 2012 could produce the same result, but it’s possible.

What happens when the race for President results in a tie? This is where some very arcane constitutional machinery is wheeled out of the storage cabinet of history.

In an Electoral College tie, also known as a contingent election, the result is decided by Congress.

The House of Representatives would vote for president. The incoming, or newly-elected, House delegation of each state would caucus and decide whom to vote for. Each state would receive only one vote. Since the Republican Party will almost certainly control the majority of members in most of the fifty state delegations, this would almost certainly mean that the House would install Mitt Romney as president.

But the vice president is chosen by the Senate. And since the incoming Senate is almost certainly likely to have a Democratic majority, that means the new vice president would probably be Joe Biden.

This would be a very odd and uncomfortable result, and would make for an extremely awkward administration, with Biden, in his constitutional role as president of the Senate, presumably trying to thwart many of Romney’s legislative initiatives.

Awkward, but possible—thanks to the peculiarities of the American way of voting.