Salena Zito

WASHINGTON – The politics behind who governs here dabbles in the absurd so often that absurdity is practically normal. So it is not ridiculous to consider that the next presidential election could end in an electoral tie.

If so, it would be the fourth time that has occurred – and likely would bring to its knees the controversial math that ultimately decides the presidency.

For more than 200 years and 44 presidents, the Electoral College has been the mechanism to make certain that the American president has sufficient popular support throughout the country to govern effectively.

Our presidents are elected to four-year terms by 538 Electoral College voters, one per senator and representative from each state and three for the District of Columbia.

Sometimes the electoral vote ends in a tie, especially when the country is divided right down the middle.

If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the decision falls to the House of Representatives.

According to House historian Matthew Wasniewski, the question of who selects the president became one of the most volatile debates among the Constitution’s framers; some wanted state legislatures to do so, while others favored direct election.

The argument against state legislatures having that power was that a president might constantly try to please the state bodies and thus not remain independent. The argument against direct elections was that presidents would always come from more populous states, thus rendering rural states voiceless.

Ultimately, the electoral system was chosen. “But the framers of the Constitution didn’t anticipate the development of a strong two-party system when they settled on the college as the method for electing presidents,” Wasniewski said.

The elections of 1800, 1824 and 1876 pointed out some of the weaknesses in their constitutional design.

The first effort to correct those problems came with the 12th Amendment to the Constitution following Thomas Jefferson’s hotly-contested first election as president. Amid public unhappiness with the electoral commission in the Hayes-Tilden presidential dispute, reforms of the 1880s aimed to make states the final arbiters of the legality of their slates of electors, Wasniewski said.

The first tie election occurred in 1800, when Jefferson and incumbent president John Adams both received 73 electoral votes; 36 ballots later, the House chose Jefferson.

Everything about that transition of power was dramatic and included name-calling, accusations of corruption, divisional party politics – even duels.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.