Could the election end in an Electoral College tie?


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the Electoral College.

Americans are bracing for a very long night on November 3rd. In fact, this year’s election tally could drag on for weeks, as absentee and mail-in ballots are counted and likely disputed. But what if, after all the votes are finally in, we end up with a tie? Is that even possible?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: WORLD reporter Kyle Ziemnick ran the numbers, read up on the history, and joins us now to help answer that question. Good morning, Kyle!

KYLE ZIEMNICK, REPORTER: Good morning! Thanks so much for having me.

REICHARD: OK, so we have 538 votes in the Electoral College. That means each candidate would need to secure 269 votes to reach a tie. Tell us how that could happen.

ZIEMNICK: It really wouldn’t take too much of a change from 2016. Joe Biden would have to win every state Hillary Clinton won. And he would have to flip Pennsylvania, Michigan, and the 2nd Congressional District of Maine, which has only one electoral vote. President Donald Trump would have to hold on to every other state he carried four years ago. That gives us a 269-269 electoral count. Statistically, of course, it’s not probable, but it’s certainly possible.

REICHARD: What’s the procedure to follow in the event of a tie?

ZIEMNICK: According to the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives would decide the election. Since the Democrats control the House, you might think Biden wins. But they don’t decide by a simple majority vote. Instead, the House votes by state delegations. As an example, Wisconsin has eight representatives. Five of those are Republicans, and three are Democrats. So Republicans control Wisconsin’s delegation. Overall right now, Republicans have a 26-24 lead in state delegations, and they’re favored to keep that through the election. That means they’d have the edge if the election goes into the House.

REICHARD: This is all theoretical, of course, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t treating it as an impossible outcome, is she? What has she done to prepare for this possibility?

ZIEMNICK: No, Pelosi is a savvy politician. She sent a letter to Democratic fundraisers last month urging them to give money to races that could flip the GOP lead in state delegations. She knows, though, that their chances to do so don’t look good.

REICHARD: What else could Democrats do to block a Republican vote in the House?

ZIEMNICK: There are some nearly unprecedented options. The current House won’t vote on any presidential deadlock. Instead, it’ll be the House elected in a couple weeks. And Pelosi and the Democratic majority could theoretically refuse to seat newly elected Republican representatives. That would be a nuclear option that could set really horrific precedent for future elections. But it’s possible. Pelosi could also go the route of negotiations. She could potentially persuade Republicans to vote for Biden by giving them other policy concessions.

REICHARD: If we find ourselves in this position in mid-November, it won’t be a first in American history, will it?

ZIEMNICK: No, it won’t. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes. You might remember this from the hit musical Hamilton. The House eventually gave that election to Jefferson. In 1824, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams both failed to get an electoral majority. Because of some potentially sketchy compromises, the House ended up awarding Adams that election. And in 1876, Congress appointed a panel to award contested electoral votes, and thus the election, to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. There was almost a civil revolt in the wake, but Republicans compromised by ending Reconstruction in the South. So America has definitely been through this kind of thing before.

REICHARD: Interesting history, but not one I think most of us would like to repeat! Kyle Ziemnick is a reporter for WORLD Digital. You can read his work at WNG.org. Thanks for joining us today!

ZIEMNICK: Of course, Mary! Great talking with you.


(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Lesley Beckley drops her completed ballot into a ballot drop box Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, on the Lummi Reservation, near Bellingham, Wash. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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