There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about the possibility of a 269-269 Electoral College tie. Stories about this tend to be peppered with hyperbole, running the gamut from “doomsday” to “nightmare” to “political pundits’ dream.”

How likely is a tie?

While not likely—a 3.2% probability, according to the redoubtable Nate Silver at—several scenarios are plausible. Silver’s models project the most likely 269-269 combo being where “Obama wins the Kerry states plus Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado, but loses New Hampshire.” But keep in mind, that’s only the most likely tie within that 3.2% probability of a tie.

What happens in case of a tie?

If the electors deadlock, the new president is elected by the members of the incoming House of Representatives, with each state casting a single vote.

This means, for example, that the entire California House delegation would meet and decide amongst themselves whether to throw California’s vote to Obama or McCain. If California’s delegation consists of a majority of Democrats, California’s vote would go to Obama. Across the 50 states, this would currently favor the Democrats, who control the majority of state delegations.

The vice president is elected by the new Senate, one vote per senator.

Now, things will undoubtedly get curiouser and curiouser between today and November 4. But as it stands the Democrats appear likely to expand their majorities in both houses of Congress. If that comes to fruition, an Electoral College tie would result in an Obama-Biden victory in Congress.

(The Washington Times suggests that the outgoing, not the incoming, Congress might in fact make the decision—possibly resulting in an Obama-Palin administration. I’m no constitutional lawyer, but this is clearly wrong. The 20th Amendment establishes January 3 as the Congressional swearing-in date. Statute sets January 6 as the date for the joint session of Congress in which the Electoral College votes are opened and counted. The results are not officially registered or acted upon until after the new Congress has been seated.)

Other thoughts

One thing that hasn’t been much discussed is how a tie would affect the job the electors have to do. I’m interested in this aspect as a candidate for elector.

I imagine there would be extreme pressure on some electors to switch their votes. For example, consider a McCain elector from an overwhelmingly Obama-voting district in Texas (yes, I’m sure there will be several). This person might face intense public pressure to vote the way the people in their district voted, even if the vast overall majority of Texans voted for McCain.

Now, I can’t see this affecting the votes of many electors, since their pledges are based on the statewide popular vote. For my part, I wouldn’t go back on my Obama-Biden pledge for Dr. Evil’s One. Hundred. Billion. Dollars.

But in a very close or tied Electoral College, I guarantee that state parties will work round the clock to double-check with each elector, make sure everyone is logistically set to attend the all-important vote on December 15, and make back-up transportation available. (That may sound like overkill, but one elector’s flat tire on December 15 could change history.)

Talk about a targeted get-out-the-vote universe!

One thought on “269-269?

  1. Silver now lists an electoral tie as being a 0.28% probability (just slightly — 0.07% — more likely than McCain winning all of the states Bush won in 2004).

    He also currently has Obama winning the popular vote at a 92% probability and winning in a landslide at a 53% probability.

    I hope and pray he’s right, but those seem like generous numbers for Obama.

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