This post contains spoilers about the fifth season of “Veep.”
The entire fifth season of “Veep” has taken place in the speculative aftermath of an electoral college tie in a presidential election, which hasn’t happened in real life in more than two centuries. In Sunday’s episode, the show took it one step further, depicting a political conundrum that has no precedent.
In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives, including its newly elected members, votes for the president on a state-by-state basis — each state’s delegation gets just one vote. All season long, incumbent Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has bootlicked like never before in an attempt to sway representatives in the House to her side. But in Sunday’s episode, neither candidate amassed the 26 requisite House votes, since three states abstained. We watched Meyer collapse to the ground in anguish as the last votes are announced.
Despite the non-decision, Meyer believes she’s just lost the presidency, surrendering it to her charming and slyly antagonistic vice presidential nominee, Tom James (Hugh Laurie). Here’s why: While the House votes for president, the Senate votes for the vice president, so if the House is unable to decide on a president by Inauguration Day, that vice president-elect ascends to the presidency and holds the position “until a President shall have qualified,” the 20th Amendment states. This means that we’ll likely see James be sworn in as president on the next episode, and with James’ popularity, he could keep the position indefinitely (though it’s unclear if the House would have to vote to make it official).
“Veep” writers seem to relish such rare political events. At the end of the third season, Meyer becomes president after the original president steps down to look after his sickly wife. The fifth season’s even-more-preposterous plot line succeeds not just because it foregrounds how desperate, depraved and downright ridiculous American government can be, but also because it operates within real American institutions and exposes the loopholes and failings.
The electoral college’s last tie was in 1800 (a plot point in the musical “Hamilton”). Over the course of seven days, the House voted 36 times, with neither Thomas Jefferson nor Aaron Burr receiving a majority until Jefferson was finally elected.
Though a tie hasn’t happened since, there are always configurations that could lead to one. For instance, during the 2012 election, pundits came up with three very plausible scenarios that would have given Mitt Romney and President Obama 269 votes each.
This time around, the website 270towin.com predicts that a tie is unlikely, though it still offers 32 different tie configurations. However, the emergence of a third candidate could also send the voting to the House, if neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton gets 270 electoral votes. In the election of 1824, which saw four Democratic-Republicans square off against one another, Andrew Jackson won the most electoral votes, though not enough for a majority. To his dismay, the House elected John Quincy Adams.
More recently, the vote could have gone to the House in 1968’s three-way race among Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Had Humphrey won in California over Nixon, no candidate would have received 270 votes, and the largely Democratic House might have elected Humphrey.
In an article for the Post, Pepperdine University law professor Derek T. Muller wrote about another scenario for this upcoming election that could pass the decision to the House. Some states are allowed to determine their electors in ways other than popular voting. So if the state legislatures were anti-Trump enough, they could just choose the electors themselves. According to Muller, if a good portion of the 31 Republican-controlled legislatures voted for a non-Trump Republican candidate, then it could turn out that neither Clinton nor Trump nor the non-Trump Republican reaches 270 electoral college votes.
A subsequent House vote could be complicated as well. In early 2015, Kyle Kondik, the communications director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, speculated in an article that, were the 2016 election to reach a tie, the Republican candidate would be favored by the Republican-controlled House.
Kondik told the Post in an interview, “Even if the Democrats were to make fairly dramatic gains, they almost certainly would not control a majority of the House delegation” after this coming election, which would effectively leave the decision to the Republicans. But some House Republicans might prefer Mitt Romney over Trump, or even a libertarian like Gary Johnson — creating the possibility that the no candidate would have a majority.
If the country buckles down against Trump, having the vice presidential-elect become commander in chief might not seem like the worst idea. Who knows? In a shocking twist of events, Clinton’s potential running mate Elizabeth Warren — who, like Tom James, is an economics whiz and would be more popular than her presidential running mate — could be our next president.