Republicans Flip the 'Electoral Backstop'

If a presidential election results in a tie in the electoral college, the election is then thrown into a GOP-controlled House.
by | November 9, 2010

By now, everyone knows that the GOP took control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 2. But overlooked in the blizzard of election results was that as the GOP flipped 60-odd House seats, the party also took the lead in an obscure but potentially crucial measure: the number of Republican-controlled state delegations in the U.S. House.

If a presidential election results in a tie in the electoral college -- or if any candidate fails to secure a majority of electoral votes -- the election is thrown into the House. If that happens, the House decides on a state-by-state basis, with every state casting one vote, regardless of size.

Prior to the 2010 election, the Democrats held a 33-16 lead over the GOP in state delegations (including the District of Columbia, which has three electoral votes for president). The remaining two states had split delegations.

In the blink of an eye, the GOP essentially reversed that lead. Today, the GOP controls 33 state delegations and the Democrats 17 with one -- Minnesota -- evenly divided.

The GOP accomplished this feat by seizing control of Democratic delegations in a whopping 18 states. They were: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The GOP also took control of one delegation that had previously been split -- Idaho's.

By contrast, only one delegation shifted from Republican to Democratic (Delaware) while one shifted from split to Democratic (Hawaii).

All the more impressive, 10 of these 18 shifts occurred in states that just two years earlier had voted for Barack Obama for president. In fact, today, there isn't a single Democratic-majority delegation in a state that went for Republican John McCain for president in 2008. Before the election, there were eight.

The scenario requiring a House-decided presidential election is not all that farfetched. While the failure to secure a majority would require a third-party candidate who won more than a trivial number of electoral votes -- something that hasn't happened in recent history -- a tie vote is quite possible. Slight -- and plausible -- shifts in state voting patterns during the past three presidential elections, especially in the razor-close 2000 Bush-Gore election, could have produced an electoral college tie.

The disappearance of the Democratic "electoral backstop" reverses the Democrats' takeover just four years ago. In the 2006 wave election, in which the Democrats took over the House as well as the Senate, the party also demolished the GOP's lead in state delegations.

Prior to the 2006 election, the GOP held a 30-15 majority in state delegations, with one independent state and four evenly divided delegations. After the election, the Democrats held 27 Democratic delegations including D.C., with the GOP controlling 21 and three tied.

Political theorists have worried about the possibility of a House-brokered presidency for multiple reasons. One is that the presidency could be decided in a contest in which Wyoming has an equivalent say to California. Another is that states with delegations equally split between the two parties could be disenfranchised entirely. A third is that lawmakers could be put in the position of choosing a president based on their party loyalty rather than on the votes of the majority of their constituents. And a fourth is that the selection of the president could end up being decided based on backroom horse trading.

None of the handful of still uncalled races should have an effect on delegation control.

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