Are We Headed for Another Electoral Mess?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 1, 2012 · 9:36 AM EDT

The 2012 presidential election looks like it could well be another squeaker, and if it is, a number of possible outcomes could produce national hand-wringing, finger-pointing, complaints of unfairness and anger, further dividing Americans and undermining confidence in our political system.

A dozen years ago, Democrat Al Gore drew 540,000 votes more than Republican George W. Bush but lost the presidency when Bush carried Florida and won 271 electoral votes.

There is no reason that couldn’t happen again, with President Barack Obama winning a narrow popular vote victory and losing in the Electoral College. Most of the same states are in play as were in 2000, and any close popular vote outcome raises the possibility of a split decision, especially because Obama is likely to “waste” large numbers of votes in carrying a handful of populous states.

In 2000, six states delivered a plurality of at least 500,000 votes to one of the major party nominees. Five of those states — New York, California, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey — went for Gore, while only one, Texas, went for Bush. Bush carried 30 states that year, while Gore won 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Eight years later, in a relative blowout, 10 states delivered pluralities of at least 500,000 votes for one of the nominees. Obama won nine of those states (the five above plus Michigan, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington), while Texas gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a huge win. McCain won only 22 states that year to Obama’s 28 (plus D.C.), though the Democrat also won one of Nebraska’s electoral votes by carrying the state’s 2nd district.

Even assuming that Obama’s large 9.5 million vote majority will be erased almost completely this time, he is still likely to “over perform” in the most populous states, again “wasting” votes in his quest to 270 electoral votes.

If you start to feel dread at the thought of the fallout from the unlikely popular vote/electoral vote scenario, here is another unlikely scenario that would boost cable viewing but further tear apart the country: Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney tie at 269 delegates, throwing the contest to the House.

Bush’s 271-267 victory in 2000 (in fact, Gore drew 266 electoral votes because one D.C. elector abstained) would translate into a 285-253 advantage for Bush after the latest round of reapportionment following the 2010 census. Given that, Obama would need to hold all of Gore’s states and win an additional 16 electoral votes to get to 269 and an Electoral College tie.

For Democrats, an electoral vote deadlock would be a problem because Republicans currently have a majority in 33 state U.S. House delegations while Democrats have a majority in only 17 (counting D.C.). One delegation (Minnesota) is now tied.

While those numbers will change after November’s elections, the GOP is likely to have a majority in at least 26 state U.S. House delegations and quite possibly many more in the next Congress. An Electoral College tie therefore would almost certainly result in a Romney victory.

If either of these scenarios comes to pass in November, the country is headed for a very difficult period. But even a razor-thin victory in 2012 is guaranteed to produce conspiracy theories, anecdotes of voters turned away at the polls or ineligible people voting and charges of irregularities. Mistakes still happen.

University of California-Irvine School of Law professor Richard Hasen believes that voting technology has improved substantially since the 2000 elections, when hanging chads and confusing ballots caused complaints about votes not being counted and resulted in an election decided by the Supreme Court.

But if the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and other remedies have improved the likelihood that votes will be counted accurately, our electoral process is still filled with flaws, says Hasen, whose new book, “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown,” will be published by Yale University Press in August.

Partisan election officials still run our elections, and levels of competence vary from state to state and polling place to polling place, says Hasen, who points to an April 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court race where more than 14,000 votes in Waukesha County initially weren’t added to the state vote totals. When, following a canvass, the votes were counted, the initial outcome of the election was reversed.

“The next [election] meltdown will be much worse [than in 2000],” predicts Hasen, citing the presence of social media.

Hasen argues that instead of opening avenues of communication and trust between people, social media — particularly Twitter ­— has made people more partisan and less tolerant. Communication is shorter and meaner. And social media makes it easier for people who are angry or suspicious to generate an uproar and organize protests that will challenge the legitimacy of the election outcome.

For those of us who are already tired of partisanship and screaming, a clear win by either Obama or Romney certainly is preferable to any sort of messy outcome. But it’s wise to prepare for the worst.