September 01, 2004
Blame D.C.

A couple of days ago, Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine blogged about the possibility that this year's presidential election could be thrown into the House of Representatives by a tie in the Electoral College. All it would take for a 269-269 tie is for Kerry to win all the states Gore won, plus West Virginia and New Hampshire.

Of course, we wouldn't have to worry so much about an Electoral College tie if it weren't for the 23rd Amendment, which gave residents of Washington, D.C. three electors, bringing the total to an evenly-divisible 538. For many decades before that, the total number of electoral votes had been odd, because the number of seats in the House of Representatives had also been odd, presumably to make tie votes on legislation less likely.* Since Senators, at two per state, are necessarily even in number, and the sum of an odd number and an even number is necessarily odd, that meant that an Electoral College tie was impossible, as long as all electors voted for one or the other of two candidates.

What Jarvis and his commenters do not mention is the even scarier possibility that the two candidates could split the states 269-269, and a single 'faithless elector' could then tip the election one way or the other. The pressure on all 538 would be enormous, and it would only take one. (Then again, if it looked like one was going to switch, maybe another would, and it would take two. The possibilities are endless, and quite repulsive.) He or she could claim to be saving the country the horror of a House-decided election, but no one would believe it. Everyone would assume that Swiss bank accounts were involved, or death threats to family members, or a judicious combination of the two. Let's all hope for a decisively lopsided electoral vote this time around.

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*The fact that the Senate has the Vice President to break ties, while the House has no such officer, suggests that the Founding Fathers planned to aim at an odd number of House members if possible. In fact, the House started with 65 members, and the first expansion was to 105, though there have been times when the total was even. The details are all in this Census Bureau PDF file. Of course, an organization with 400+ members can hardly expect all of them to show up on any given day, no matter how crucial the matter under discussion.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at September 01, 2004 05:21 PM