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OP-ED: American election: End game

  • Published at 10:35 pm August 11th, 2020
Trump US elections
Will some from his own party vote against him? REUTERS

Could Trump still have a chance?

This article discusses ways the election between Trump and Biden might end. As everyone knows, the election of the American president takes place through 50 state-run elections plus one election in the District of Columbia. Each candidate for president has listed his “electors” on the ballot and the voter selects the list for the candidate of his choice for president.

The number of electors that a state has equals the number of members of the House of Representative plus two [the number of senators]. Some states have three votes [eg Alaska] while California has 55. The District of Columbia has three. Whichever candidate receives the most electoral votes becomes president. The electors must vote for the candidate whom they represent if the state that they represent requires it; about half the states do require that the elector must be faithful.

Most states require that whatever candidate wins the majority of the electors (equivalent to the popular vote in the state) all of the electoral votes of that state are given to the winning candidate. Only two states allocate the electoral votes according to another rule. This election system has worked quite well for the US although in recent years, problems have emerged.

There have been two recent elections where the elected president who received a majority of the electoral votes did not win a majority of the popular vote. One was the 2000 election where a dispute over the voting in Florida was resolved by the US Supreme Court in favour of George Bush.

The Democratic candidate Gore won a majority of the popular vote, but Bush won in the Electoral College once the results for Florida were settled in his favour. The second case was 2016 where Trump won a majority of the electoral votes but lost in the tally of popular votes.

Pandemic voting

The election in November 2020 will be conducted in the midst of the pandemic now sweeping across the US. This will cause difficulties in the traditional voting where people go to the polls and register their vote in voting machines or in hand ballots. There will be a shortage of poll workers to carry out the administration of the election as a large number of these volunteer workers are over 50 years old and fear exposure to the virus.

This results in fewer polling stations and much longer lines for voting. Some observers fear that this will reduce the turn-out to vote.

The other type of voting takes place through mailed ballots. In this type of voting, the ballot is mailed to the voter; the voter completes the ballot and attaches whatever ID is needed, and mails the ballot back to the voting centre. The ballots must be mailed back before election day.

There is often a period of a few days after the election day when ballots can be received by the voting centre. In some states, the postage is paid by the voting authorities; in others the voter has to pay. The rules for mailed ballots are different from one state to another.

In a few states, the entire election is conducted by mailed ballots. Other states have quite restrictive rules as to the use of mailed ballots. In the face of the pandemic, many states are trying to increase the number of voters that avail the mailed ballots, making it simpler to utilize this approach.

Trump has opined that mailed ballots are more likely to be fraudulent votes than ballots cast at a polling centre. There is little evidence of voter fraud in the US although Trump continues to claim so; he has been unable to produce any evidence.

Trump’s views have also been supported by Barr the attorney general although he claims the risk comes from foreign countries introducing counterfeit ballots.

What might happen? When there are a large number of mailed ballots and verification and counting starts on election day, it may take several days to complete the counting. The counting might be further slowed by challenges to votes. If the election is close in a state, then it may take weeks to complete the counting of all of the mailed in ballots.

One fear is that there will be disputes about the vote counts resulting in claims of different winners. If there are such differences and the courts refuse to resolve (as they should) then the resolution must be carried out by the Congress.

This happened once in American history in 1876, when the electors of three states were contested. As a consequence of this, a law was passed detailing how to manage such a situation. It has never had to be used, but common legal opinion is that this law is not very precise and there is room for conflict over how it can be implemented. 

Looking to the constitution

The constitution requires that if there is no majority in the Electoral College then the selection of the president shifts to the House of Representatives. This could happen in a number of ways: Disputes over who are the legal electors could not be resolved by January 6; when the results of the Electoral College voting are to be completed so no candidate has a majority; if there are three candidates and the electoral votes are split so no one has a majority (270 votes); some electors in states that do not require the electoral to be faithful vote against the candidate that they are supposed to represent. In the forthcoming election, the first and third cases are possible.

If the choice of president goes to the House for resolution, then the voting procedure is as follows: Each state has one vote that is determined by the members of the House elected for that state.

Suppose that this were to happen and the House comprises the members as of today. The Republicans control 26 states, the Democrats 23, and one state is even (Pennsylvania). We leave out the District of Columbia which does not have a member of the House. Trump would win the election!

Changing the House

However, the election may change the make-up of the House of Representatives. How might changes in the House of Representatives change things? First, we assume that states with one or two members of the House will not change. These seem to be states where the party position has been stable. There are four states where a change of one additional House seat as Democratic would cause a shift in the balance (Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Florida).

There are 15 possible combinations of changes if at least one of these states experienced a shift of one House seat from Republican to Democratic.

Of these 15 alternatives,

• Four result in Democrat wins

• Four result in ties

• Seven result in Republican wins

The ties can only be resolved by someone changing their vote.

There is one very important member of the House of Representatives, the member from Wyoming, Liz Cheney. Wyoming has only one seat so Ms Cheney controls one of the 50 votes in choosing the president.

Ms Cheney does not like Trump and may well be the “Hamilton” of 2020 casting her vote for Biden just as Hamilton did to get Jefferson elected in 1800. She can break all of the ties in favour of Biden!

She can also take all of the seven cases where the Republicans win and force these into a tie. Then someone else would have to be the Hamilton.

If you think that the confusion around the election is going to result in the House of Representatives deciding, then Liz Cheney is one of the most powerful persons in the US. I believe her father former vice-president and close friend of George Bush, and she, would see the true interests of the US were to ensure that Biden becomes president. Duty to country over party.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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