Dreading a Tie Vote in the Electoral College

Bush is hoping to win at least one electoral vote in Maine.

Bush is hoping to win at least one electoral vote in Maine. hide caption

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Reagan's 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 is the best ever for the GOP.

Reagan's 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 remains the best-ever showing for the GOP. hide caption

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A great line, but did he steal it from Barry Switzer?

A great line, but did he steal it from Barry Switzer? hide caption

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 Fifty-one years ago today, Burke's appointment changed the partisan makeup of the Senate.

Fifty-one years ago today, Burke's appointment changed the partisan makeup of the Senate. hide caption

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Q: What would happen if there were an electoral-vote tie — 269 electoral votes each for President Bush and Sen. Kerry? I understand that it would then go to the House of Representatives. But what happens there? And is the Senate also involved? — Claire White, Washington, D.C.

A: It's the absolute nightmare scenario for 2004, given how the 2000 election was decided. Susan Page brought up this possibility in a recent USA Today article. She noted that if all the states voted this time as they did four years ago — with the difference being that New Hampshire and West Virginia go Democratic — Bush and Kerry would end up with 269 electoral votes each. And if that happened — if neither candidate received an electoral-vote majority — then the election would be thrown into the House. And, I suspect, the country would be thrown into a crisis that would make Florida 2000 look like a picnic.

Before Congress would get involved, there would be a 41-day opportunity for either side to coax an elector to switch sides. Of the more than 17,000 electors who have been chosen since the days of George Washington, only 10 have been "faithless." One D.C. elector refused to cast a ballot in 2000 (as a protest over the District's lack of voting rights). Before that, a 1988 Michael Dukakis elector in West Virginia decided to vote for his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen. So who knows what could happen? But let's say that when the electoral college members meet in their respective state capitals on Dec. 13 (41 days after the election), the result is a 269-269 tie. The election then goes to the House.

Each state's delegation in the House gets one vote; that's true whether it's California, with its 53 members, or Wyoming, with its one member. If a state's delegation is split evenly, it would abstain from voting. Currently, Republicans control 30 state congressional delegations, Democrats 15. Four states have tied delegations, and Vermont has an independent member (though thought likely to vote for Kerry). From this number alone, it looks like Bush would win easily if it went to the House.

An electoral-vote tie happened once in history. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes. The House voted 10-4 (with two abstentions) for Jefferson.

(The Senate does have a role; it chooses the vice president. Each senator gets one vote. Would Vice President Cheney be allowed to break a 50-50 tie? That's probably unlikely. A tie vote — God help us — would no doubt lead to the Supreme Court deciding.)

There are many "ifs" to consider before we reach this point. Besides the issue of "faithless electors," there's the situation in Colorado. Amendment 36, on the state's ballot next month, calls for Colorado's nine electoral votes to be awarded proportionally according to the presidential vote. Thus, the nine votes could be divvied up 5-4, further complicating what might happen. And then there's the situation in Maine and Nebraska, the two states that currently don't have winner-take-all electoral votes. There, the statewide winner gets two votes, plus one each for whoever carries a congressional district. Maine has had that system since 1972 and Nebraska since '91, but neither state has ever split its votes… though that could happen this year in Maine (see next question).

Q: Being from Nebraska, where we can (but never do) split our electoral votes, I was curious if the other state that can split its electoral votes — Maine — actually has a chance of doing so this year. — Eric Martin, Lincoln, Neb.

A: It does. While polls show the state to be close, the expectation is that Kerry carries Maine. But the Republicans are working hard in the rural, 2nd Congressional District, which Bush lost by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000. The presence of a bear-baiting ban on the ballot (say that one time fast) is expected to bring out hunters in large numbers, and the Bush camp is hoping to benefit. (Check out the piece on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered last Sunday by Maine Public Radio's Fred Bever.)

Q: When is the next presidential debate? — Mayuri Guntupalli, Ann Arbor, Mich.

A: Wednesday, Oct. 13th, at Arizona State University in Tempe. It's the final debate between Bush and Kerry before the election. Remember: As soon as it's over, turn off the TV or radio. Don't let the spinmeisters or pundits tell you who "won." Decide for yourself.

Q: Why weren't there any presidential debates between 1960 and 1976? We hear so much about the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and how strongly it influenced the outcome of that election, but then another didn't occur until '76. — Josie Roberts, Niagara Falls, N.Y.

A: The short answer is that President Lyndon Johnson, with a commanding lead in 1964, decided there was nothing in it for him to debate his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. Democrats helped his cause by killing any efforts in the Senate to suspend the equal-time provisions that would have allowed just Johnson and Goldwater (apart from the minor-party candidates) to debate. Nixon, haunted by his performance in the '60 debates, refused to square off against Hubert Humphrey in '68 or George McGovern in '72, each time citing LBJ's refusal to debate. According to Alan Schroeder, author of the definitive and splendid Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (Columbia University Press, 2000), President Gerald Ford decided to debate his opponent in 1976 "not out of a sense of civic duty but for political advantage." Ford was trailing his Democratic rival, Jimmy Carter, and felt that he could best sell his long resume and experience in nationally televised debates. Ultimately, it was a gaffe in one of the debates — in which he seemed to prematurely liberate Eastern Europe from Communist domination — that helped doom his candidacy.

Q: At this summer's Republican convention, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed he became a Republican when he heard the debate in 1968 between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Since there obviously was no Nixon-Humphrey debate that year, why haven't the media pointed out this fabrication by Schwarzenegger? — Vincent Maher, Washington, D.C.

A: I've received a bunch of these questions, which is puzzling. Let me tell you that your premise is wrong. Schwarzenegger never said at the convention what you say he said, and I'll tell you how I know that. During last year's California gubernatorial recall, I remember reading that Schwarzenegger was quoted as saying that he joined the GOP when he heard the Nixon-Humphrey debate. And I remember scratching my head, wondering how someone could talk of a non-existent event that was pivotal in his life. So when the "Governator" begin his speech at the convention, talking of his path to the Republican party, I listened very closely, wondering if he would actually talk about his memories of a debate that never happened.

He didn't. Here's what he said: "I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak… [It] sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, 'What party is he?' My friend said, 'He's a Republican.' I said, 'Then I am a Republican.'"

I'm not exactly sure what mileage there is in praising Richard Nixon in 2004, or for that matter, calling Hubert Humphrey a socialist. That question is for another day. But Schwarzenegger absolutely did not talk about a Nixon-Humphrey debate at this summer's convention.

Q: Republicans have touted the idea that by potentially garnering 20 percent to 25 percent of the Jewish vote, they will have achieved some kind of breakthrough. If Kerry polls 75 percent-80 percent of that demographic, isn't he doing what a Democrat usually has done in recent elections among Jewish voters? — Marshall Solomon, West Bloomfield, Mich.

A: It's my understanding that Republicans were hoping for at least 30 percent of the Jewish vote for it to be called any kind of a breakthrough. It remains to be seen whether they'll get it. As you point out, 20 percent to 25 percent would not be much of an improvement over the 19 percent Bush received in 2000, and it's a far cry from the record 40 percent Ronald Reagan got in 1980 when he defeated President Jimmy Carter. I suspect that number was a less an indication of Jewish voters' admiration of Reagan and more of anger over the Carter administration's support of a United Nations resolution that condemned Israel for building settlements in the West Bank and for an unauthorized meeting U.N. ambassador Andrew Young held with a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Bill Clinton won 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992, and Al Gore was right behind that with 79 percent in 2000. The invasion of Iraq — a longtime adversary of Israel — and the Bush administration's solid partnership with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led some Republicans to believe that Bush would increase the GOP percentage this year. But among Jews, support for the Sharon government is hardly monolithic, and the war in Iraq is being seriously questioned… not to mention widespread discomfort over the administration's close relationship with religious evangelical Christians.

Jews comprise about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they vote in great numbers; among the voting population, it's closer to 4 percent. Theoretically their vote in some key states — such as Florida — could tip the balance.

Q: I always thought the line, "He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple," originated in Ann Richards' keynote at the 1988 Democratic convention [referring to George H.W. Bush]. Someone told me the line originated elsewhere. If so, who and when did it first surface? — Warren Mitofsky, New York, N.Y.

A: It wasn't Ann Richards who delivered that line at the '88 convention; it was a fellow Texan, then-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. He followed it with, "He [Bush] is threatening to lead this country from tweedle-dum to tweedle-dumber."

But it wasn't Hightower who originated it. Barry Switzer, the legendary head football coach at the University of Oklahoma, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1986 as saying, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." It's usually Switzer who is credited with the quote. But the wonder of Nexis has produced this quote from Time magazine's Susan Fraker, who wrote this in the May 30, 1983, issue about Superior Oil head honcho Howard Keck: "People who know him say that he can be vindictive and that he often acts capriciously. And like many very rich people, he is not accustomed to anyone disagreeing with him. The trouble with Howard, an acquaintance says, is that 'he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.'"

This Day in Campaign History: Thomas Burke, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland, is appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Republican leader Robert Taft. The appointment changes the party lineup in the Senate from 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats and one Independent (Oregon's Wayne Morse) to 48 Dems, 47 GOPers and one indie. But Democrats agree that there will be no effort to take control and instead will await the outcome of the midterm elections in 1954 (Oct. 12, 1953).

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