What if neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump receives a majority of electoral votes on November 8th? Can’t happen? Oh yes it can! Our country has had two elections where none of the candidates for an office received a majority of the electoral votes (and one where there was a tie). Let’s look at a what could happen.
First, we should dispense with the notion that the popular vote for President will count for anything. It does not. A popular vote is not even contemplated in the Constitution. To be precise, having the people vote for President is not even required under the Constitution. “Electors” elect the President and Vice-President, and the selection of those electors is left entirely up to the states. For many years the electors were appointed by the state legislatures.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution states:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
There are currently 538 electors, corresponding to 435 Representatives, 100 Senators and (by means of the 23rd Amendment) 3 electors for the District of Columbia. A candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes (270) becomes President (the same for Vice-President). When no candidate receives the necessary 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives gets to choose the President and the Senate chooses the Vice-President.
In the House, a vote is taken of the three candidates receiving the most votes overall, with each state delegation allowed one vote. The winning candidate must receive a majority of the votes, meaning 26. If no candidate receives 26 votes on the first ballot, the voting continues until a candidate does receive that number of votes.
In 1800, due to mis-communication in the Democratic-Republican party, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an the same number of electoral votes, sending the election to the House. In the contingent election neither man initially received the necessary nine votes needed to be declared the President. Thirty-five votes and seven days later, Jefferson still lacked the one vote needed to put him in the White House. The efforts of Representative Alexander Hamilton broke the logjam and Jefferson was able to claim the prize. There’s a lot more to the story and it makes a good read.
A recent poll by RealClearPolitics found more than one third-party candidate “surging” in the polls (their definition of “surging” differs from mine). If this trend continues for the next three months, however, the chances of an outright win of 270 electoral votes by either Hillary or Donald diminishes significantly.
So let’s say, for the sake of the discussion, that Donald Trump receives 265 electoral votes, Hillary 260, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson receives 15 and Green Party candidate Jill Stein the remaining 8 votes. The contingent election in the House would occur on 6 January 2017, immediately after the joint session of Congress officially counts the cast electoral votes (see 12th and 20th Amendments). Senators would immediately head for their chamber to conduct an election of the Vice-President (the Vice-Presidential candidates would presumably receive the same number of votes as their running mates).
In the Senate, Senators would vote individually, not as state delegations, and would select from only the top two Vice-President candidates. Fifty-one votes would be required and the sitting Vice-president would preside, but not vote.
What would be the outcome?
If the contingent elections were held with the present Congress, Donald Trump and Mike Pence would likely win their respective elections. Republicans hold a slim majority of 53/47 in the Senate and a wider majority of 273/162 in the House; as long as no Member “defected,” the outcome would likely be Republican. Except that these contingent elections will be conducted by a new Congress, which will have taken their seats on January 3rd. Every single Representative and one third of the Senators are up for re-election in November and the new mix is anyone’s guess at this point. I should also point out that Congressmen would not be bound to vote by party affiliation, they could vote anyway they feel led. Of course, they would be expected to explain their vote to their constituency.
One final note: in the House, voting is by state delegation. Where a delegation is split between the two major parties (Maine has one Republican and one Democrat, New Hampshire the same, and New Jersey six of each) the delegation would presumably cast a null vote, which would count for no candidate.
Over the next three months it would behoove everyone one to keep an eye on the polling for third-party candidates. This is a critical election for America; it could even be an exciting one.
There is a lot more to discuss. If this short essay piqued your interest, on September 12th I’ll be speaking on the “Genius of the Electoral College” as part of the Foundation for American Christian Education’s Lessons in Liberty series. From 7-9pm, I’ll discuss the history of the College, why “contingent elections,” as we call them, now were expected to be the norm, and the project gaining traction across the country to replace the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote (without amending the Constitution!). You can attend this event in person in Chesapeake, VA or online via Livestream.com. Cost either way is a whopping $10 per person. Hope to see you there.
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 In 1824, Andrew Jackson received a plurality of the electoral votes but not a majority. The House elected second-place candidate John Quincy Adams instead. In 1837, “faithless” electors prevented Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Johnson from gaining a majority of electoral votes. The Senate easily elected him.
 I’m counting Independents with the Democrats.