Washington — U.S. political polling on how Americans are likely to vote November 6, particularly in hotly contested swing states, has generated many predictions that the contest between President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is going to be very close.
Because U.S. presidents actually are chosen by 538 electors rather than directly by the voters, is it possible that neither Romney nor Obama will receive the 270 electoral votes needed to win? Or could one win the most votes overall but lose the electoral vote? Could they even tie, with 269 electoral votes apiece?
Technically, all of these scenarios are possible, and some have even happened before in U.S. history because of the Electoral College system.
In the 2000 election between President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, Gore lost the election despite winning the popular vote. Both candidates needed Florida’s 25 electoral votes to win, and the state’s election results showed Bush’s margin of victory over Gore so slim that mandatory vote recounts were necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5–4 to end the recounts, which allowed Florida to certify its results in favor of Bush.
Thomas Neale, a U.S. government specialist at the Congressional Research Service, says if he had been asked in late 2000 if the U.S. Congress would propose a constitutional amendment either to reform or replace the Electoral College, he would have said yes at the time because of the controversy over the election results.
But the Congress didn’t do so, he told an audience at Washington’s Foreign Press Center on October 24, explaining the difficulty and hard work involved in passing amendments.
Congress instead focused on the difficulties encountered during the Florida recount and implemented new technological standards for voting, including electronic voting hardware. Congress also authorized grants to help U.S. states “modernize their voting systems so that we could move forward in that area and make the recording of votes more complete and accurate and timely,” Neale said.
The U.S. Constitution is the world’s oldest that is still in use, and the Electoral College system reflects the 18th-century American mindset, which restricted democratic participation to white men who owned a certain amount of property. “It was such an unusual idea in 1787 to have direct election,” Neale explained.
America’s founders also favored the system because they wanted the elections to be decided by individual states, rather than the federal legislature. “They did not want the president to be answerable to Congress for his election or re-election. They wanted the president to be more independent,” he said.
ELECTORAL COLLEGE ANIMATES 2012 PREDICTIONS
According to New York Times pollster Nate Silver’s predictions for the 2012 election, as of October 25 the chance that Mitt Romney will suffer Al Gore’s fate and win the popular vote but lose the electoral college is 5.6 percent, compared with a 1.8 percent chance for Obama.
Silver’s analysis also says there is a 10 percent likelihood that the result from a decisive swing state will be within the margin of error (0.5 percent) and require the state’s election officials to recount the ballots.
But his latest data show there is only a 0.5 percent chance that Obama and Romney will obtain a 269 electoral vote tie. In that scenario, the U.S. House of Representatives would decide the outcome, with each state’s delegation being allowed one vote.
The House has determined the election winner only twice in U.S. history. In 1800, the House was called to break an electoral college tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. In 1824, no candidate received an electoral college majority and the U.S. legislators ultimately picked John Quincy Adams as president.
Just as the House of Representatives needs to determine a U.S. president in cases where neither candidate wins a majority or the electoral vote is tied, the U.S. Senate would pick the winner of the vice presidency under U.S. constitutional law.
Most pollsters assume that after the coming elections, the Republican Party will retain control of the House of Representatives and the Democratic Party will hold on to the Senate.
In a Romney-Obama electoral vote tie, it is therefore likely that the House of Representatives would choose Romney as president. However, it is just as likely that the Democratic-controlled Senate would choose Joe Biden as vice president over Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan.
In his remarks, Neale acknowledged that the U.S. Electoral College system is “not perfect.” Still, there have been 51 U.S. presidential elections, and in 47 of those the winner of the electoral votes also won the popular vote, which is “a pretty good record,” he said.
In all likelihood, the 2012 election “should make it 48 of 52 if everything works out, which is not bad in the greater scheme of things,” Neale said.