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What if the Election's a Tie?

An article today on electoral-vote.com raises a fascinating prospect: what if the election is a tie?

I don’t mean a popular vote tie (virtually impossible), but an electoral vote tie. If George W. Bush wins exactly the same states as he did in 2000, the election would be decided 278-260 in the Electoral College. Now, suppose John Kerry peels off New Hampshire (4 E.V.) and West Virginia (5) — both of them battleground states in which Kerry currently holds a polling lead. That would make the election a 269-269 tie. Not likely, perhaps, but certainly plausible.

Under the Constitution, if no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the President, with each state’s delegation getting one vote. Republicans control 31 of the state delegations today, with 14 in Democratic hands, and 5 tied. Nobody thinks the Democrats can do well enough in this year’s election to take control of a majority of the state delegations. Therefore, a 269-all tie in the Electoral College is as good as a Bush win.

But in one of the more peculiar Constitutional provisions, the Senate would get to choose the Vice-President in case of a tie. The Democrats have a decent shot at taking over the Senate in this election. Not a superb shot, but at least an average shot. It could therefore happen that the House chooses President Bush, but the Senate chooses Vice-President Edwards, sending Dick Cheney into early retirement.

Needless to say, a Vice-President Edwards wouldn’t be welcome in the Bush White House. Indeed, you could expect Edwards to have a good deal of time on his hands, showing up in the Senate only occasionally to do the one thing the Constitution allows all VPs to do: cast a tie-breaking vote. At least, he’d have plenty of time to plan his 2008 Presidential race, while drawing a handsome government salary (and a beautiful home at taxpayers’ expense) for doing essentially nothing.

Oddly, this would mark an unintended return to the original system. Before 1804, electors didn’t vote separately for President and Vice-President. Instead, each elector just wrote down two names. The candidate receiving the most E.V.’s — provided he was named on a majority of the ballots — became President, and the candidate receiving the second-most votes became Vice-President. It was thus quite possible that the President and V.P. would not only come from different parties, but indeed would be complete ideological opposites.

The system of separate choice for a President and V.P. was adopted after the 1800 election, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College. After 1800, the House of Representatives chose the President just one more time. That happened in 1924, when Andrew Jackson won the popular vote handily (43.1%), but the electoral votes split among four candidates, and the House voted John Quincy Adams President. Jackson supporters were outraged, and he easily defeated Adams four years later.

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