By Jim Ellis
Sept. 23, 2020 — As we move closer to Election Day, various scenarios are being discussed and theorized about who will win the presidential race and which states will fall to what candidate. A little-mentioned outcome, which is a mathematical possibility, is an Electoral College tie.
A deadlock would occur if each candidate received 269 electoral votes. Based upon the 2016 result, which saw President Trump receiving 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232, a tie would occur if the incumbent were to lose exactly 37 electoral votes from his previous performance.
The easiest way for that to occur is if President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden were to build the same coalition of states with the exception of Pennsylvania, Michigan and the 2nd District of Nebraska going from the Republican to Democratic column. In this instance, the two 2020 candidates, Trump and Biden, would have 269 electoral votes apiece.
If this were to happen, how is a tie in the Electoral College resolved? The answer: in the House of Representatives. The difference between the vote for president and a regular House vote is that individual members do not have his or her own vote for president. Rather, each state delegation has one vote.
Therefore, California, for example, with its 53 House members gets one vote for president. Conversely, the at-large states with one House member, such as Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, would also each get one vote. So the vote for president skews toward the small states and rural regions.
Interestingly though, the Democrats control the House majority with 232 members and one Democratic vacancy to 198 Republican seats with one Libertarian sitting in what is typically a Republican seat and three GOP vacancies. Yet, if partisanship holds, the Republicans would win a presidential election vote 26 to 23 with one state, Pennsylvania, in a 9-9 split delegation. Assuming that the Keystone delegation would fail to agree on a candidate, the state would not be able to cast its vote.
The District of Columbia, although having three electoral votes, would not be represented in the tie-breaking vote because they have no voting member of the House and the vote is limited to the states.
Just how secure would be the Republican advantage? For that, we have to look to Montana. Early this week, the Siena College/New York Times (Sept. 14-16; 625 likely Montana voters) released a poll in the Montana open at-large seat race that found Democratic former state representative and 2018 congressional nominee Kathleen Williams pulling ahead of State Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) by a 44-41 percent count. If such a margin were to hold and Williams converts the seat to the Democratic column, the presidential margin would slip to 25-24, possibly coming down to a one-seat swing in Pennsylvania. Another possibility, in addition to a Montana conversion, would be for Democrats to defeat the Dean of the House, Alaska Rep. Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon), in a race that is polling close. This would actually create a 25-25 tie presidential vote in the House, and what would happen then?
In such an instance where the House also becomes unable to resolve the presidential result, the tie-breaking process moves to the Senate. This is the body that would elect the vice president. In the Senate, each member holds his or her individual vote and the state from which they hail becomes irrelevant. Should the new Senate arrive at a majority vote, the vice president would be sworn in, and then become Acting President until such time an Electoral College majority for the presidential candidate is established.
While the chances of the election ending in a tie are rather remote, it is certainly mathematically and politically possible. The congressional role in breaking any type of Electoral College tie is just one more example of the political game within the game the candidates must manage.