What Could Go Wrong? Electoral College Ties And Swing-State Recounts

As we learned in Florida, recounts aren't as simple as they'd seem.

So this is supposed to be the closest election ever, right? You may have even heard some pundits waxing apocalyptic about the possibility that the Electoral College vote could actually end up in a tie — 269 votes for each candidate. Well, don't despair, we've been there before, and there are plenty of rules for what happens when an election is too close to call, or even tied.

Let's start back in the day, in 1800. If you thought the 537-vote margin in Florida was close last year, you obviously haven't heard of the battle between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. At the time there were only 146 Electoral College votes, and each candidate garnered 73 — a dead tie. The Jefferson/Burr dilemma was settled through a constitutional provision that said the House of Representatives gets to vote for the president in the case of a tie. The veep? That went to the guy with the second most votes — in that case, Burr.

Sounds crazy, right? Well we may be headed for a tie in the Electoral College again. Electoral College geeks have worked out about a dozen different combinations where the vote could end in a tie this year. If it does, we may see what folks saw 200 years ago — with one exception. A new law was added to the books after the Burr/Jefferson fiasco that says the vice presidential choice goes to the Senate, where they choose between the two parties' VP candidates. So the outside possibility is there for a Bush/Edwards or Kerry/Cheney White House.

But an Electoral College tie is less likely than a recount happening somewhere in one of the hotly contested swing states. As we saw in Florida during the 2000 election, the counting and recounting process isn't as simple and just counting and recounting. Let's take a look at how the rules vary:

  • Florida (27 electoral votes)

In the Sunshine State, votes are automatically recounted if the margin of victory is one-half of 1 percent or less (about 50,000 votes.) A recount can also be conducted if the losing party asks for one before 5 p.m. on November 5. If the candidates are tied after a recount, Florida law states that the winner will be chosen by drawing lots.

  • Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes)
Pennsylvania only adopted its automatic recount law a few weeks ago. Less than one-half of 1 percent (about 40,000 votes) difference and there's an automatic recount. You've got three weeks to ask for a recount, but it must be completed within a week. If the candidate still isn't satisfied, they can take the results to state court.

  • Ohio (20 electoral votes)

The Buckeye State gets an automatic recount if the margin of victory is less than one-fourth of 1 percent (about 20,000 votes.) It's up to the Ohio Board of Elections to determine how to do the recount, and only election employees and board members can touch the ballots in a recount. If Ohio comes up a tie, it goes to the Secretary of State to pick the winner.

  • Minnesota (10 electoral votes)

Minnesota is like all of the other big states — auto recount for a difference of less than one-half of 1 percent. The loser can also request a recount, but they've got to foot the bill. The Gopher State also requires the recount to be done "as soon as possible."

  • Iowa (seven electoral votes)

A recount may only occur if there are less than 50 votes or 1 percent of the votes separating the competitors. The loser has to pony up a thousand bones to get the count done — so it pays to win the first time. The recounting board is composed of two members, one chosen by each of the candidates. Those two members choose a third person to assist them, or one is appointed by a judge.

  • Nevada (five electoral votes)

If you just got beat in a Nevada election, the only way to get a recount is to ask for one within three days. Election officials then go through an elaborate process of sample counting to determine whether you deserve a recount or if it was a legit blowout. If it's a tie after the recount, the state legislature picks the winner.

  • New Mexico (five electoral votes)

If the losing candidate thinks there was voter fraud or error, they can request a manual recount of all the ballots as long as they do so within six days. But it's gonna cost ya — a whopping 50 bucks per voting municipality. But if fraud is discovered, the municipality will foot the bill.

So keep this sheet handy, stay up late on Election Day and impress all your friends with your recount knowledge.