How does the American electorate get past a tie? And what will it mean for actually governing?
There are now less than three weeks to go and the political divide is as thin as ever. The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows challenger Mitt Romney in the lead 47.4 percent to Barack Obama’s 46.9 percent. But in the swing states, and in the Electoral College, the advantage tips for Obama. The New York Times’ Nate Silver is forecasting (as of today) 287.2 votes for Obama to Romney’s 250.8.
It’s easy to see how the election could end up a reverse of George W. Bush’s 2000 election against Al Gore. In that scenario Romney would roll up large margins of popular vote in states such as Texas but lose the election in the Electoral College.
If that happens Congressional Republicans – the House is likely to remain under Republican control – would ignore the results and the political divisions present for the past couple of years would be cemented into place.
There’s also a slim chance – but everything is slim in this election – that the Electoral College could end in a tie, 269 for Obama and 269 for Romney. In that case the House of Representatives would elect the president, Romney, and the Senate would elect the vice president, quite possibly, Joe Biden.
A Romney-Biden administration? That’s an image that conveys how deeply the country is divided. Deep but equal because there is not a lot of movement. Voters are stuck in their firmly rooted ideological camps.
Of course this is the weakness in the American system. There is often divided government, the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court, all pulling in their own direction. Most nations, on the other hand, have systems that give all power (or nearly all power) to the winning coalition.
So Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives two years ago with a charge to reform government, shrinking it dramatically, and shifting direction. It didn’t happen. All they could say was no. And not even on everything. Republicans campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act and voted on it 33 times. It’s still law. And, unless Republicans win the Senate (less likely than a few months ago) and the presidency, that will not change after January. The Affordable Care Act will still be the law (then the battles will shift to funding, but that’s another story).
The idea of a tied electorate will be significant a few days after the vote. Congress must figure out before January 1 how to solve the coming fiscal cliff, severe budget cuts for domestic and military spending, returning to pre-Bush taxes, and a layoff of tens of thousands of federal employees and as many as a million workers across the country.
Today a group of financial chief executives pressed Congress to “reach a bipartisan deal to avoid” what could lead to a deeper recession. “The consequences of inaction – for stability in global financial markets, for economic growth, for millions of Americans still without work, and for the financial circumstances of American businesses and households – would be very grave,” the CEOs said.
Of course Indian issues are like a flea on a dog, bouncing from side to side, without any resolution. This has real impact when one side supports a major piece of legislation, such as the Violence Against Women Act, while the other seeks an opposite course. Like I said, no resolution.
“The costs of the separation of powers in America, so evident today, have long been recognized by political theorists, many of whom expressed a preference for a parliamentary form of government, with its weakened separation of powers,” according to a paper written by F.H. Buckley, George Mason University School of Law. “Woodrow Wilson was there first, in a little book he published in 1885 called Congressional Government. The fastidious Wilson wrinkled his nose at the tone of American politics. Congressmen read banal speeches to an empty house, with nothing like the drama, the wit, the sharp exchanges of a parliamentary debate in Westminster … Ours was a system that protected the boring and inarticulate from exposure, and sent mediocrities to Congress.”
A parliamentary form of government does two things that are missing from American politics. First, the party in power has near absolute power, and second, must face the minority party often during Question Time. In many countries the exchanges are brutal, but begin a dialogue that sharpens arguments before the next election.
Or, as Buckley puts it, “the rickety machinery they devised for the election of presidents was a sealed car speeding through the first decades of the republic.” He said the “Framers drafted a Constitution which in time gave us democratic government, egalitarianism and the civil rights revolution, none of which they foresaw. As Gordon Wood reminds us, they were not the first of the moderns but the last of the ancients. The irony is that, as ancients, they had wanted a parliamentary system of governance which would have served us better today.”
Especially after an election that leaves more division than consensus. Then again, if Romney were to win the majority vote and lose the election, or, if a tie resulted in his election, there might be enough outrage to press for constitutional reform. Separation of powers, indecision, what ever you want to call it, isn’t a governing mechanism.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.