What a D.C. Vote in Congress Means for the Electoral College

Legislation to give the District of Columbia a voting representative in the U.S. House cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate today, bringing D....
by | February 24, 2009

Legislation to give the District of Columbia a voting representative in the U.S. House cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate today, bringing D.C. voting rights closer to reality. This occurred even though critics of the bill said that it would violate the U.S. Constitution.

Since the constitutional criticism didn't work, the foes of this legislation should turn to a different argument: It would make presidential elections a little bit less fun.

The compromise in the D.C. House Voting Rights Act is that the District gets a seat in the House and Utah (which narrowly missed a 4th seat in the 2002 reapportionment) gets a seat too. That means the House will have 437 members, instead of 435. The District will elect a Democrat. Utah will probably vote for a Republican.

After 2012, when reapportionment happens again, the District keeps its vote. Utah loses its special privilege (although it probably will get a fourth House seat based on population growth), but the House stays at 437 members.

That's important for presidential elections because the Constitution says that each state gets the same number of electoral votes as it has seats in Congress (in both the House and the Senate). So, you'd think that two more members of Congress would mean two more electoral votes, increasing the Electoral College from 538 members to 540.

However, the 23th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted the District voting rights in presidential elections, stipulates that the District only gets as many electoral votes as the state with the fewest. Even if this legislation is enacted (and upheld by the courts), Washington, D.C. will still only have three electoral votes.

As a result, the Electoral College will only increase by one vote, not two. That means that the Electoral College's members would add up to 539, which, tragically, is an odd number. When you have an odd number of voters, it's always tricky to end up with a tie vote. Unless a third-party candidate took some electoral votes, one candidate would have a majority.

Now, some people might say that's a good thing. In fact, some people have. Here's what FairVote had to say:

By virtually eliminating the chance of a future Electoral College tie, however, the DC VRA meets a clear public interest value, given the potential instability coming with such a controversial U.S. House vote and the highly questionable process of each state casting one vote regardless of population.

Ok, so a tie in the Electoral College might result in political instability, as the country waits not knowing who will be president. I'll concede that it might even be a "nightmare scenario." On the other hand, it would sure be exciting.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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