Page One

If the Electoral College Fails, What Next? (News Analysis)

Gar Smith
Friday November 04, 2016 - 11:50:00 AM

As the 2000 presidential race demonstrated, US elections can be—at worst—a meaningless sham in which the candidate who wins the popular vote can still be denied the presidency.

Even stranger, under the arcane rules of the US Electoral College, the 2016 presidential race could, in theory, result in a new administration consisting of a President Gary Johnson and Vice President Mike Pence.

Here's how that could happen.

Both Trump and Clinton remain profoundly unpopular with many voters. It takes a bare majority—270 of the Electoral College's 538 votes—to win the presidency.

On November 1, NBC's Chuck Todd noted that, in the wake of the latest FBI announcement about a new email investigation, Clinton's Electoral College lead had fallen to from 288 to 256 while Trump's total had jumped from 158 to 259—still leaving both short of the necessary 270 majority. 



So what happens if neither of the candidates garners the Electoral College's magic number? 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) lays out the process as follows: "If no candidate receives a majority of Electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the president from the 3 Presidential candidates who receive the most Electoral votes." 

The House is currently dominated by a Republican majority that would favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But if Trump continues to self-destruct, disgruntled Republicans would be free to choose third-place Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. 

Meanwhile, as the NARA's Federal Register explains: "The Senate would elect the Vice President from the 2 Vice Presidential candidates with the most Electoral votes." 

Democratic Senators could be tempted to stymie the GOP's victory by nominating fellow Dem Tim Kaine—a candidate sworn to uphold the values enshrined in the Party Platform. Republicans, meanwhile, would maneuver to promote Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as vice president-elect. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., reportedly revealed that, if elected, his dad plans to hand over all the boring, day-to-day presidential duties to his vice president, thereby freeing Trump Sr. to concentrate on "making America great again." 

As CNN reported on July 21, 2016: "Multiple sources close to [Ohio Gov. John] Kasich said Trump's son, Donald Jr., tried to entice Kasich with a position as the most powerful vice president in history, but he turned it down. Kasich would have been in charge of all domestic and foreign policy in a Trump White House." [Emphasis added.] The Trump campaign denied the story but a subsequent New York Times report confirmed the account. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort bolstered the report during a May 2016 interview with the Huffington Post when he explained that Trump "needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn't want to do. He sees himself more as the chairman of the board." 

Trump-Kaine, Trump-Pence? Given Trump's fundamental disinterest in hands-in governing, either outcome could, for all practical matters, transform Kaine or Pence into a de facto president. 

This prospect might sway some politicians to consider a Gary Johnson presidency. 

With the increasing disharmony between Trump and the mainline GOP, there is another scenario that could wind up making either Kaine or Pence the next US president. Here's how it might unfold: 

Once again, citing the NARA's Federal Register: If the House fails to select a president by Inauguration Day, "the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House." 

While the House has never been called upon to select a president, the Senate has, in the past, intervened to approve a VP. This has only happened once. 

In 1836, Democrat Martin Van Buren secured enough Electoral College votes to become president, but his running mate, Richard M. Johnson, fell one vote shy of the mark. Johnson had to face off against Francis Granger, a Republican, who was the VP choice on the Whig Party ticket. 

(Further complicating matters, the Whig Party was split that year, so Granger's name appeared as VP on two presidential tickets—one for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison and another for Whig candidate Daniel Webster.) Ultimately, in the only "contingent election" in US history, Johnson was chosen to serve as Van Buren's VP by a Senate vote of 33-16. 

So, come Inauguration Day (and barring an imposed Johnson presidency), either Mike Pence or Tim Kaine could have his hands on the purse strings and the nuclear buttons. As to how the "deadlock" would be "resolved," that would be anyone's guess. 

Ironically, Trump is correct about one thing (albeit for all the wrong reasons): The system is "rigged." 

Even Vladimir Putin, after looking at the US model for presidential selections, recently scoffed: "You call that a democracy?" In Russia, presidential leaders are determined by a direct vote by the people. There is no Electoral College. Russia also holds its elections on Sundays, so people don't have to leave their jobs to vote. 

Despite Washington's rhetoric about "spreading democracy," many of our staunchest allies are monarchies or repressive regimes. Meanwhile, more than 100 of the world's nations already elect their leaders through open democratic elections. According to Wikipedia, the only countries beside the US that use an "indirect election"/Electoral College model are Estonia, Germany, India, Pakistan and Suriname. 

Given all of the above, wouldn't we be better off if we simply abandoned the Electoral College altogether and joined the majority of the world's nations that actually practice the kind of free, open and unmediated political engagement that arises from a direct, popular and democratic vote? 


Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, a Project Censored award-winning investigative journalist, and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and the author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). A version of this article first appeared on TruthOut.