Electoral Ties & Upside Down Victories

With the election just days away I’m getting lost in the many fascinating layers of presidential politics. Two are especially fun: the possibility of a tie and the way the electoral college works.

It’s a Tie!
First up, the New York Times has a neat little map showing the 512 possible outcomes in the presidential election based on nine battleground states (don’t you just love how the other 41 states are a foregone conclusion?). Of those potential paths, 421 lead to an Obama victory, 76 to a Romney victory and five to a tie.

That’s right, all this campaigning and we could end up with a tie.

But don’t worry, the 12th amendment addresses such a possibility. The House of Representatives gets to pick the president (but with an odd, one vote per state delegation rule) and the Senate picks the vice president. Based on which parties control which chambers, we’d most likely end up with President Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden. Now there’s a wacky pair.

But the 12th amendment isn’t actually that simple. It not only speaks to a tie, but a case where no one gets a majority of the electoral votes. This scenario happens when there are more than two parties winning electoral votes. It’s only happened once in history, 1824, when Andrew Jackson received 99 electoral votes, John Quincy Adams got 84, William H. Crawford got 41 and Henry Clay got 37, all shy of the 131 needed at the time. Based on the complex rules of the 12th amendment, the top three electoral vote getters can be considered by the House, so Clay was out. He threw his support to Adams, and the House eventually elected Adams as president.

Boy was Andrew Jackson pissed.

For more fun, here’s a video showing how a third party could take advantage of this quirk. Such a strategy was attempted in 1836, 1948 and 1968 but failed all three times.

Upside Down Victory
Which brings us to the other wacky issue with our presidential election system: the details of the electoral college. As you probably remember only vaguely, the president is not chosen by a simple majority of citizens, but by the electoral college, a bizarre quirk of representational democracy where we don’t vote for a candidate but for people who will vote for a candidate. It’s left over from the days when we didn’t trust the common citizen. Hmm…

Each state has a certain number of electors and the winner of a state gets all the electoral votes for that state. It’s all or nothing. Which means the popular vote is practically meaningless. This is where it gets crazy.

A fun little video details how the electoral college works and showcases that someone could win the presidency with only 22% of the popular vote. All it takes is winning in a bunch of small states by a single vote. That’s right, more than three-fourths of the nation could vote against someone and they could still win the presidency. Watch it for yourself:

But surely that won’t happen, right? As the election of 2000 has shown us, anything can happen. Thankfully, we’ve been through it in recent history and the country didn’t come apart at the seams.

What About Popular Vote?
Oddly enough, we also weren’t motivated to change our system. Frankly, it seems like a straight popular vote might be simpler. It sure would have made social studies class a lot easier. It also might result in more equitable campaigning with candidates visiting all states and not just the swing states. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is one attempt to do away with the popular vote over the electoral system and the Wikipedia article includes plenty of pros and cons. The method they use is even more complicated though, relying on the fact that state legislatures decide how their electoral votes are cast, so the compact says that when a majority of states sign on, they will assign their electoral votes based on the popular vote, regardless of the result in their own state. Seems like it’d be easier to just pass a Constitutional amendment, like the Every Vote Counts Amendment, though it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Sheesh. Presidential elections are way too complicated. Is it Tuesday yet?

12 thoughts on “Electoral Ties & Upside Down Victories”

  1. I also think the electoral college should be abolished, but I don’t think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is the right way to go about it. Here’s why: just like in the electoral college a candidate may be elected despite winning as little as 22% of the will of the people, the NPVIC would force the country to adopt the popular vote based on the decisions of legislators in only a handful of states. If the measure passes in those states by a slim majority (and we assume that the legislature is truly representative of the population) while failing miserably in the rest of the states, the country could essentially be forced to adopt the popular election with well under 50% popular support.

    Like I said, I’m all for a popular vote (or a ranked choice system), but let’s do it the right way by amending the Constitution.

  2. I tend to agree. The NPVIC seems like a bassackwards way of doing it. Maybe easier than amending the Constitution, but certainly not as stable or permanent. States could simply repeal it and we’re back to the old method.

  3. In the event of a tie, could the senate also choose Obama as the VP? THAT would be a fascinating administration. I could imagine that it would be quite valuable to have a former President as your Vice President.

  4. Carl, as hilariously awesome as that scenario would be, I don’t think the Senate can do that. I think they’re limited to choosing from the top VP candidates.

    Isn’t that Pres vs. VP conflict how it was in the beginning and they changed it because there was such turmoil?

    Makes me wonder though, has a former President ever served as a VP? I saw an article speculating about that in 2004.

  5. Now you’ve got me diving into the Constitution (always a good thing). You may be correct.

    For what it’s worth… No President has ever served as VP after the Presidency. BUT, Andrew Johnson served in the Senate after his Presidency. (Sadly, however, only for 4 months. He died of a stroke shortly after taking his seat).

    Now I can continue the day slightly smarter. Thanks!

  6. Yay for knowledge!

    I can see why a president wouldn’t want to be demoted and serve somewhere else, but it’d be kind of cool if they did.

    I wonder if there’s some kind of gentleman’s agreement as to why they don’t, kind of like how Washington set the precedent of a two-term limit when there wasn’t actually a limit.

  7. Running as a VP would seem to raise a problem with the 22nd Amendement. If you run as VP you have the potential of becoming president. If you had served one term, not a problem. But if two terms I think you would be prevented from running.

  8. The article I linked to above addressed that issue and seem to think the 22nd Amendment would allow it because the term limit applies to being elected to two terms, not assuming the presidency. However that’s based on my blog write-up of an article from 8 years ago that’s not even linked to, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Wikipedia (more salt) says there’s an unresolved conflict between the 22nd & 12th amendments and we don’t know if a former president could run as vice president. No one has yet tested it.

    Pure speculation, but fascinating stuff. I was wondering the other day how things would have played out if there was a 3-term limit instead of 2. The Wikipedia article above says there were multiple attempts in the 1980s to abolish the 22nd Amendment and create a third term for Reagan. Never got out of committee, but they tried.

    I wonder how that would have worked out? Seems like both Clinton and Bush would have a hard time getting elected a third time.

  9. Short of war, I can’t envision a time when people really will want to support a president for more than 8 years. I doubt that Roosevelt really would have been elected again without the looming WWII

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