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What happens if there is a tie in the presidential race?

A view of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, on election day. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
A view of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, on election day. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

HOUSTON – While a tie in a U.S. presidential election is rare, the framers of the Constitution did develop a process to handle such a dilemma.

First, let’s talk about what a tie means. We choose the president by allowing electors to cast ballots based on the way the vote played out in their state. Among all the states, there are a total of 538 electoral votes. To win the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of those votes – the magic number is 270. If no candidate wins a majority, the so-called “contingent election” clause of the Constitution is used to determine a winner.

Article II, Section 1 provides: “[I]f there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President.”

While that section provides a method to the madness, the 12th Amendment actually lays out the contingency plan. The 20th Amendment also controls some elements of the process.

How does it work?

If no one gets a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives is tasked with picking the president from among the three top vote-getters. The delegation from each state gets a single vote and a majority of those votes, 26, is necessary to win.

The Senate is required to pick the vice president from the two candidates who got the most electoral votes. Each senator gets a vote.

If the House can’t break the tie before the end of the presidential term, then the person elected vice president will act as president until the House can break their deadlock.

Has it happened before?

There have been two presidential elections that have ended without an electoral majority, but it has been nearly 200 years since it happened.

The first one happened in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied with 73 electoral votes from the 16 states. It took the House seven days and 36 ballots before they chose Jefferson as president.

In 1824, a contingent election led to the selection of John Quincy Adams as the sixth president of the United States.


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