Electoral College Math

As we near the major party conventions one can only wonder what the next four months have in store. At this early phase of the election cycle many outcomes are plausible. Clearly Hillary Clinton has the early advantage but as we know from past elections mistakes will be made and unexpected twists and turns could shift the balance several times before the election.

A candidate must receive a majority of the 538 electoral college votes to win. At this point it seems highly unlikely that either of the other party candidates, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, will win any electoral votes, essentially making it a two candidate race. It can be fun to play games with electoral college math. There are several websites that allow you to speculate on various outcomes by choosing the winner in each state, including the site 270toWin. One of the possible outcomes is an electoral college tie, where Clinton and Trump each receive 269 electoral college votes. Though the probability of this happening is low the consequences are significant.

If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral college votes then, as stated in the twelfth amendment to the constitution, the House of Representatives must choose the president. In this process each state gets one vote and a candidate must receive a majority of those votes, or 26 states, to win. Each state’s vote is determined by the vote of its congressional delegation (based on House rules). If there is a tie vote within a state delegation that state effectively abstains. The house conducts as many voting rounds as are needed until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. There is no need to consider what happens should this process fail as that is virtually impossible with the current congressional make-up of Republicans and Democrats.

With the high negative ratings of the two major candidates in the race, there will almost certainly be many crossover voters, i.e., voters who don’t vote for their own party’s candidate. Independent voters in each state will also play a key role in determining the outcome. Should there be an electoral college tie vote, one of the most interesting questions arises from a scenario that might occur in several states. Generally members of the House would vote for their party’s candidate to determine each state’s vote. However, if Trump wins the popular vote in a battleground state like Oregon, for example, where Democrats hold a majority of the congressional seats, will those Democrats have the gall to override their state’s voters and cast their votes in the House for Clinton? They might find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they vote for Clinton they risk the ire of voters back home, but if they don’t they face sure retribution from their party’s leaders. Each Democratic House member’s vote might depend on the popular vote within her district. If her district voted for Clinton, then she could easily vote for Clinton in the House vote. But if her district voted for Trump, she might feel compelled to vote for him unless his margin of victory was narrow. This is one case where the popular vote within congressional districts could have a significant impact, as they did in some states during the primaries. It would also put the notion of representation to a real test.

Of course a similar scenario could occur in a state with a Republican majority in the House, where the popular vote favored Clinton. But this seems somewhat less likely for the following reason. If Trump manages to win 269 electoral votes to force a tie, then he has likely won almost all states with a Republican majority in the House as well as some with a Democratic majority. That is virtually the only way he receives that many electoral votes. But if Clinton won the popular vote in Nevada, for example, Republican House members in that state would face the same dilemma.

So if you want political excitement and intrigue then pray for a tie, unless you fear a Trump presidency. With a House Republican majority in 34 states, it seems certain that a tie goes to Trump.

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