Deadlock in the 2020 Presidential Election?

By Thomas Murphy, guest blogger

Americans could wake up on January 20, 2021, to witness the inauguration as the next president of the United States … well … no one.

Twice in the last 20 years — 2000 and 2016 — American presidential elections were distorted and endangered by the antiquated institution known as the Electoral College. What Americans don’t know is that the system reserves even worse outcomes, including an electoral deadlock, a situation in which no one is elected president. Then, the only way to avert crisis is good-faith bargaining. And good faith is in short supply nowadays.

A deadlock in the Electoral College is unlikely. Deadlocks have occurred only three times in the more than 200-year history of presidential elections. All three times, the issue was decided through negotiations but only just in the nick of time.

An Electoral College deadlock would leave it up to the House of Representatives to choose the president. But the Constitution doesn’t make it that easy because each state gets only one vote. That vote is decided by a majority of each state’s congressional delegation. An absolute majority of the states is needed to win. Should the House balloting also end in deadlock, no president would be elected. As shown by previous close calls, it could happen.

The United States came close to a deadlock in 2000. Had Florida failed to report its electoral votes, because of vexing and unresolved recount disputes, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore would have had the requisite majority of 270 electoral votes to become president-elect. Similarly, had Florida sent disputed slates of electors to Congress, a nasty congressional battle over certification might have ensued, with attendant recriminations, delays and dangers.

Similar conflicts occurred in the 19th century. Electoral slates in three southern states were disputed after the voting in the 1876 election, leaving certification to a Congress not only bitterly partisan but still reeling from the emotional fissures opened by the Civil War and the divisive Reconstruction that followed it. Months of noisy legal maneuvering, machinations of a controversial special commission and back room dealings followed. Americans were only assured that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and not Democrat Samuel J. Tilden would be their next president two days before the March 4, 1877, inauguration.

Elections in 1800 and 1824 failed to produce the necessary absolute majority — one half plus one — in the Electoral College, sending the choice to the House of Representatives.

America came close to another such electoral crisis in 1968, when a third party candidate, George Wallace of Alabama, walked away with 46 electoral votes. The shift of just a few thousand votes in a couple of states might have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, with unpredictable consequences since some of the southern delegations might have supported Wallace.

This year’s election is unlikely to produce a credible third party challenger; however, in recent years a new threat has crept into the system — the figure of the “faithless elector.” Initially in 2016, 10 of the 538 electors attempted to cast ballots for candidates other than the major party nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Three of the 10 were forced by electoral officials in their respective states to back down; but, in the end, seven electors bolted their party and, disregarding the will of voters, scattered their ballots among several candidates, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who receiving three votes, referred to the incident, in a recent interview, as “amusing.”

Less amusing is the exercise of overlaying the 2016 onto the 2000 results; with George W. Bush achieving only a bare majority at 271 electoral votes but with seven of the votes going astray, including three for fellow Republican Colin Powell, no one would have been chosen president in November 2000.

Thomas Murphy is author of the novel Deadlock: What happens if no one is elected president? available on He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Murphy is a long-time journalist and foreign correspondent. Now semi-retired, he worked for Knight-Ridder, Associated Press and Dow Jones, among other news-gathering organizations. He lives in São Paulo, Brazil.


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