Some of you think you will go to the polls on November 3rd and vote for Joe Biden for president and Kamala Harris as vice-president. More of you probably think you will be voting for Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Strictly speaking, all of you would be wrong.
Who’s really in charge here?
Mississippians who vote in the presidential election in November will actually be voting for six people they have never heard of. Those six, almost anonymous, individuals will meet in Jackson on Monday, December 14. It is they who will vote on who will be president and vice-president.
On that date 532 other mostly unknown people will meet in state capitals around the country. The total group of 538 mostly anonymous Americans is known as the Electoral College. It takes a majority of their votes – 270 is the magic number – to elect a president and vice-president.
However, the electoral votes will not be officially tabulated until done by a joint session of the U.S. Congress the first week of January, 2021. Then, if either Trump-Pence or Biden-Harris has 270 votes, that team will be inaugurated on January 20. In all likelihood, that is the way it will play out.
What else could possibly happen?
However, this is perhaps the wackiest presidential election we have had since Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Breckinridge split the American electorate in 1860. Most polls give Biden-Harris a slight edge in the nationwide popular vote, but it is probably going to be very close.
President Donald Trump, himself, is the main issue in this year’s campaign. People either like Trump or hate him. Even some who hate Trump will vote for him because they don’t think Biden is up to the job. Nobody especially hates Joe Biden, but very few are really enthused about him. Some said of Harry Truman in 1948, “We’re just MILD about Harry.” Likewise, Democrats in 2020 are just MILD about old Joe.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells, one of the sharpest and most objective political writers around, said a couple of weeks ago: “Trump looks likely to be either the least popular incumbent to win re-election in the modern polling era, or the most popular one to lose it.”
This is 2020, after all
After the polls close on Nov. 3rd, the lawyers will battle it out in court – precinct by precinct, state by state. The only for-sure winners are going to be the lawyers and “consultants” who are going to earn millions of dollars in fees fighting over this year’s election outcome.
Because the country is so bitterly divided, it is not hard to imagine circumstances in which neither Trump nor Biden will come up with 270 votes.
There are a number of scenarios that might prevent either major party ticket from clearly reaching the magic number of 270 electoral votes.
This is not a prediction, but a speculative example of how that might happen. Let’s say Trump clearly wins 267 electoral votes and Biden wins 264, not a majority for either one. Where are the other seven votes?
Scenario I: the Portland seven
Cast your eyes on the U.S. map. Look at the second state from the top on the far left. That’s Oregon, 4.2-million people with just seven electoral votes. About 60 percent of the votes in Oregon are in the Portland metropolitan area. Interesting place, Portland.
Portland has been called the least religious city in the United States. Over 42% of the population identifies itself as religiously “unaffiliated.” It has a 100-year tradition of left-wing political activism. It has a significant, established faction which identifies itself as anarchist. During recent months, many of the anarchist folks have adopted the additional sobriquet, “Antifa.” With only a 6.3% African-American population, Portland has been the hotbed of American cities regarding Black Live Matter. Portland has seen demonstrations and riots on more than 100 days during the last four months.
Portland elected Sam Adams as its first openly gay mayor in 2009. He gave up the job after one term for an even more prestigious position in the city. Fifty-four percent of Portland voters are registered Democrats, and 11% are registered Republicans. The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, is openly bi-sexual. This is not to bash gay people or Democrats. (I have many friends who are Democrats and several who are openly gay. And all of the gay ones aren’t Democrats.)
The point is that Oregon, with its seven little electoral votes, comprises many people who despise Donald John Trump. They are also “mild” about Joe Biden.
Let’s say the people of Portland, where most of the Oregon votes are, decide they are sick and tired of President Trump Twittering his Trumpers in the state of Washington, urging them to cross the Columbia River into Oregon and shoot paint ball guns and “bear spray” at the all the dear old lefties in Portland. And they know Biden isn’t their most stalwart supporter. (The former vice-president opposed gay marriage in 1996, but flip-flopped on the issue in 2012).
The people of Oregon are well-educated and tech savvy. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine them organizing a write-in vote, giving their seven electoral votes to Governor Brown.
Scenario II – III: Look farther east
Or look at the upper right side of the map and find the tiny states of Vermont with three electoral votes and Massachusetts with 11. Socialist-Democrat U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, has created far more real enthusiasm than Biden. In Massachusetts, Senator Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren was disappointed at not getting Biden’s vice-presidential nod. With a strong following among progressives and women in Massachusetts, she might run well there as a write-in candidate.
Is it far-fetched to imagine that Oregon, Vermont, Massachusetts or another state might award its electoral votes to other than Trump or Biden? A little, perhaps. But the possibilities for mischief in this year’s presidential election do not stop there.
Scenario IV: The ungovernable election process
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission says there were 116,990 polling places and 917,694 election workers involved in the 2016 presidential election. The opportunities for human error, electronic glitches, and outright fraud are immense.
Forty-eight of the 50 states give all their electoral votes to whatever candidate receives a plurality of certified votes. Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes according to congressional districts. Nebraska has five electoral votes and Maine just four. It is not hard to imagine how a major squabble in either of these small states could create a snarl if the national elector vote is close.
Then, throw in the fear and loathing created by COVID-19 and the intense disputes about early voting and mail in voting, et cetera. You have yet another set of factors that could impact the vote count.
Guess who picks the president if Congress in early January does not find a clear majority of 270 electoral votes for either Trump or Biden?
The newly-seated U.S. House of Representatives would elect the president. For this process, each of the 50 states gets only one vote. The U.S. Senate would elect the vice-president, with each senator getting one vote.
Scenario V: The U.S. House of Representatives
The U.S. House of Representatives currently has 232 Democrats, 198 Republicans and one Libertarian. There are currently four vacant seats. Most analysts believe that the Democrats will hold on to their majority in the November elections. The Libertarian (from Michigan) is not seeking re-election, and will likely be replaced by a Republican. Even if all four vacant seats go to Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely to still have a comfortable majority. This is assuming there are no major upsets elsewhere, of course.
Does that mean she would thus be able to elect Joe Biden? No, it does not.
Each state would get only one vote for president, regardless of the size of its House delegation. So, the party that controls the most state delegations can decide the presidency. Right now, that is the Republicans. As the House is currently constituted, Republicans have majorities in 28 of the House delegations. Democrats have majorities in 20 delegations. Two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania) have equal numbers from both parties. Tied delegations must choose a single candidate, or their vote is not counted.
Mississippi will likely retain its three Republican congressmen and its one Democrat. California currently has 53 House members, 45 Democrats and eight Republicans. That ratio is not likely to change significantly. Therefore, Mississippi’s one vote for president would go to Trump and California’s one vote would go to Biden. In this scenario, a vote is a vote, no matter the size of the state casting the vote.
We’re sadly short of genius and mulberry trees
A vote by the House, as currently constituted would be 28 for Trump, 20 for Biden. Michigan and Pennsylvania’s tied delegations would have to find some way to resolve which candidate gets the state’s one vote. Perhaps dueling pistols at dawn on the banks of the Potomac could settle it.
Mrs. Pelosi is said to be frantically trying to find a way to improve her position and her ability to elect Joe Biden president if there’s not a clear majority in the Electoral College. Unfortunately for her, she’d have to change the party composition of the delegations at least four states. That would be some high stepping for an 80-year old girl (81 in March). But nobody ever said Nancy is not a stepper.
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia, during the hot summer of 1787. They thought all of this out very carefully. During breaks in deliberations, Ben Franklin advised Hamilton and Madison, while sitting in the shade of a mulberry tree. Ben was already past 81 at the time. Maybe Mrs. Pelosi will find a mulberry tree. Problem is, where will she find a couple of certified geniuses like Hamilton and Monroe to work with?
By the way, Mississippi’s six electors, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, were named Ann Hebert, Joe F. Sanderson, Jr., Bradley R. White, J. Kelly Williams, William G. Yates and Wirt Yerger. I asked Mississippi Democrat and Republican Party big wigs who their designated electors are in this year’s elections. None of them had any idea.
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