Obama and Romney court the last undecided voter

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (August 14, 2012)

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election when the   Supreme Court awarded Florida’s electoral votes to  George W. Bush. Is there a chance something that wild could happen again? Given the even ideological split in this country, such a scenario is easy to imagine.

Instead of going to bed at a decent hour the other night, I got hooked running numbers with an interactive electoral map of the United States on the Los Angeles Times website. The map lays out the states that the presidential candidates are likely to carry. For President Obama, those are most of the states bordering the Great Lakes, those in the Northeast and most of New England, the West Coast, New Mexico and his birthplace (yes, I said birthplace!), Hawaii. That gives him 247 fairly solid electoral votes. Mitt Romney looks like a safe bet to gather 191 electoral votes from most of the Mountain West and the Midwest, along with much of the South, Indiana and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Just eight states are in play. Some combination of wins in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada will determine which candidate captures the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

What is fun about the interactive map is that it allows a person to click on the swing states and change them from neutral gray to Romney red or Obama blue. Different combinations give sharply different results, of course. For instance, Obama could lose seven of the eight swing states, but, were he to carry Florida, he would win the election. In any scenario, Romney needs to capture no fewer than five of the swing states to get to the White House.

As I put together different combinations, I had in mind that Republicans traditionally do pretty well in most of those states still too close to call. So, I hit on a scenario that gave Romney the southern trio -- Virginia, North Carolina and Florida -- plus the two Western states – Colorado and Nevada – that are seldom hospitable to Democrats. I also gave Romney Iowa in the heartland, although that is pretty good ground for Obama. To the president I gave only Ohio as a reward for saving the auto industry and New Hampshire because, in the end, that independent little state generally goes for the Democrat. 

It was a completely plausible split and the result was a shock: 269 electoral votes each for Obama and Romney. A tie!

As those of you who paid attention in social studies class will remember, if no candidate achieves 270 electoral votes, the decision is thrown to the newly elected House of Representatives. There, each state gets one vote. That is right, Vermont carries as much weight as Texas. Though California, Oregon and Washington together have 10 times as many voters as Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho combined, those six sparsely populated red states would get twice as many votes for president as the three blue West Coast states.

Each state vote is decided by the state congressional delegations. In the current Congress, Republicans hold the majority in 33 delegations, Democrats hold 16 and one state, Minnesota, has a split delegation. Unless there is a dramatic movement toward Democrats in the 2012 congressional elections, Republicans will still control the most delegations in the next Congress.

That means an electoral college tie puts Romney in the White House. But the news is not necessarily as good for his running mate, Paul Ryan. The Senate gets to pick the vice president, and each senator gets one vote. If Democrats hold on to the Senate this fall, Joe Biden comes out the winner.

Throw in the distinct possibility that Obama, like Gore in 2000, could win the popular vote, and you’ve got a real nightmare of democracy: An incumbent president favored by a majority of the people gets tossed out by Congress and the new president gets saddled with a vice president from the opposition party.

Of course everything changes if just one elector in one state takes it upon himself to break the tie. In most states, that would be a perfectly legal thing for an elector to do. Such craziness is the risk we run under a system in which every vote counts, but some count a lot more than others.