If you want to make God laugh, says the proverb, tell him your plans.
The American people plan to go to the polls next Tuesday to elect a president, and if things go as they normally do, we will know before we go to bed or as soon as we wake up the next day who will occupy the White House for the next four years.
But don’t be too sure.
Americans learned in 2000 that a close election can be an unpredictable and even protracted affair. Al Gore came in first in the popular vote but, after weeks of legal wrangling over how to count the votes in Florida, George W. Bush prevailed in the Electoral College. The winner was not decided until Dec. 12 — seven weeks after Election Day.
This year, political experts see a reasonable chance of a similar scenario, with the parties reversed. Mitt Romney could finish first in the popular vote while losing enough battleground states to give Barack Obama a second term. If the outcome in one of those states is very close, a recount could ensue, postponing a resolution.
That delay would produce a great deal of uncertainty and antagonism, but not as much as another scenario: a tie vote in the Electoral College. At that point, Americans would be in suspense at least until the electors formally cast their votes on Dec. 17.
The Constitution provides that in case of an electoral tie, the decision passes to the incoming House of Representatives. In an unusual twist, each state gets one vote, giving Wyoming as much say as Illinois. Since Republicans have a majority in 33 state delegations (a number that is not expected to change much), Romney could be expected to win easily.
But it might not come to that — even if the election produces an Electoral College tie. That’s because a tie on paper may not be a tie in actuality. Most states have laws requiring electors to vote for the winner in their state, but others don’t, and occasionally a “faithless elector” furnishes a surprise.
In 1972, an elector from Virginia, which voted for Richard Nixon, cast a vote for Libertarian Party nominee John Hospers. In 2004, a Minnesota delegate opted for John Edwards instead of John Kerry. In those cases, the defection made no difference. But in a tie situation, it could be decisive.
If electors can defect in case of a tie, of course, they also can defect in case of a near-tie — say, if one candidate wins enough states for a 270-268 electoral victory. In that case, a single switch could turn a squeaker into a deadlock. Nothing in the Constitution says the process can’t turn into a full-scale greased-pig contest.
Romney may take comfort that if the Electoral College yields a stalemate, he can count on House Republicans to vote for him even in states that Obama won. But that rose might come with thorns. If the Electoral College doesn’t produce a winner, you see, the House elects the president — but the Senate elects the vice president. If Democrats retain control of the upper chamber, they would be expected to choose … Joe Biden.
In that case, Romney would appear before Congress to deliver the State of the Union address while behind him, Biden rolls his eyes, shakes his head and laughs derisively. Assuming, that is, Romney would dare to turn his back on him.
The country would marvel in bewilderment. But the Almighty could have a great laugh.
Editorial by the Chicago Tribune