With the general election between inevitable Republican nominee Donald Trump and the all-but-assured Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton looming, and reports swirling that mainstream conservatives might try to run a third-party candidate, there's a very unusual scenario that could play out come November, the likes of which we haven't seen in electoral politics for a very long time. Namely, what happens if nobody gets 270 electoral votes in the general election, and therefore doesn't possess the majority needed to claim the presidency?
There's already a real potential for a volatile race, with a lot of distance now open between Clinton and the parts of the Democratic electorate who've so aggressively backed Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. And, as Philip Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post detailed in a report on Saturday, Trump could be in for it too ― a cadre of mainstream Republicans, including Mitt Romney, are allegedly plotting to run a third-party conservative to derail his bid.
And the ambitions of these Republican politicos don't stop just at denying Trump the White House, either. There's reportedly also the hope that the presence of a more stable, presidential Republican could soak up enough electoral votes to deny Clinton the 270 she'd need to win outright. While this could just be wishful thinking, and it won't be entirely clear for months whether it comes together, it's definitely worth knowing what that would mean.
Luckily, there's a very clear procedure for what happens if no candidate secures a 270 electoral vote majority that's laid out in the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It's a huge departure from the traditional system of American politics and elections. And though it's not completely impossible, it would be an incredibly destabilizing and inflammatory event.
Simply put, if nobody gets to 270 electoral votes, it comes down to the House of Representatives to pick the next president from the three candidates leading in electoral votes. Obviously, in this imagined scenario, that would be Clinton, Trump, and the mystery conservative. Here's how it would work: Each state delegation would have just one vote. Meaning (for example) that all of California's 53 representatives would have to vote among themselves to decide how to cast their one overall vote. When a candidate secures an outright majority of 26 state delegations, they become the president-elect.
Also, the president-elect could theoretically be severed from their vice presidential pick under this situation. If no VP nominee gets a majority of the electoral votes, it gets kicked to the Senate, which has to pick only from the top-two VP electoral vote-getters rather than three pick like the House would have for president. If the Senate ends up settling on a different vice president than the one on the president-elect's ticket, well, that's tough. That's the new executive branch, and they'll have to learn to get along.
It might be an interesting and even fascinating idea to consider, sure, but it really can't be overstated how damaging this could be to the American political system. Rather than, say, defaulting to the popular vote, which would at least enhance a sense of democratic legitimacy, the 12th Amendment provides that if no candidate can hit 270, the question of the presidency is pulled away from the people and sent straight to Congress.
It's very easy to imagine it poisoning a lot of people against engaging with the political system at all. After all, if this was a more common, frequently witnessed outcome, people might be better able to prepare for it, but it literally hasn't happened since 1824. In other words, if for no other reason than you care about avoiding a constitutional crisis and preserving a fair outcome, you should be rooting against this with all of your heart.