Clinton or Trump for President: What Happens If the Election Is a Tie?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump after the third presidential debate on Oct. 19, 2016.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump after the third presidential debate on Oct. 19, 2016. (Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What could possibly make this election season worse? If it didn't end on Election Day.

Although most people, regardless of their side of the aisle, are hoping that the presidential race will be over by Nov. 9, there is a rare chance that the election could drag on.

That could happen if the Electoral College votes result in a tie, or if no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes. There are nearly 100 different scenarios in which the Electoral College could be tied 269-269, according to

"You can always get a 269 tie if you put together the pieces just right," said James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. [Election Day 2016: A Guide to the When, Why, What and How]

Still, most political analysts aren't holding their breath for a tie.

"It's very unlikely," Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor at Princeton University who runs the Princeton Election Consortium website, told Live Science in an email. 

Recent polling and election prediction sites such as put the odds of a tie at just 0.6 percent and the odds of electoral deadlock (when no one gets a majority because of third-party candidates) at just 1 percent.


In the event that neither candidate gets the majority of the vote, the House of Representatives would decide the president, said Lyle Scruggs, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. However, congress is still bound by the electoral vote. [Election Day 2016: How Are the Votes Counted?] 

According to Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, "[t]he Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have [sic] a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the President." 

In other words, if Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump each have 269 electoral votes, then the current House of Representatives must choose one of them. Because Republicans hold a majority in Congress, Trump would very likely be chosen, Scruggs said. If neither candidate gets a majority of votes, then third-party candidates come into play — if they can earn electoral votes. (The 12th Amendment subsequently limited Congress to choosing among the top three candidates.)

Because of the winner-takes-all structure of most states' electoral votes, third-party candidates typically face an uphill battle in presidential elections. For instance, in 1992, Ross Perot won nearly one-fifth of the popular vote but earned 0 electoral votes, Scruggs said. The last third-party candidate to take a significant chunk of the electoral college was the segregationist George Wallace in 1968, who had a strong showing in the South, Melcher said. [7 Great Dramas in U.S. Congressional History]

This year, a third-party candidate's chance of disrupting the race is slim.

"There's only one person who has a chance, really, of getting any electoral votes besides Trump and Clinton," Scruggs told Live Science. "His name is Evan McMullin."

McMullin, a former CIA operative who hails from Utah, has a decent shot at taking electoral votes in his home state, a heavily Republican state that has recoiled from Trump's candidacy, Scruggs said.

"In three-person polls [in Utah], they're polling pretty closely together," Scruggs said. "Some have McMullin with 30 percent, Trump with 32 percent and Clinton with 28 percent."

If McMullin prevails in Utah, the House could, theoretically, choose him, though it's extremely unlikely that the Republicans would disregard the popular vote and choose a relatively unknown candidate, Scruggs said.

When the Constitution was originally written, the second-place finisher in the presidential race would become the vice president. The flaws in that setup became crystal clear in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson's enemy, Aaron Burr, tied him for electoral votes and the House picked Jefferson as president only after 35 votes. (This spurred the passage of the 12thAmendment, which separates the presidential and vice presidential races.)  [The Nastiest, Strangest Political Elections in U.S. History]

Historical roots

Though the idea of Congress picking the president may seem odd, the framers of the Constitution actually envisioned the president being chosen by representatives similar to how Parliament chooses a prime minister in the United Kingdom, Scruggs said.

"Because there weren't political parties, they expected the House would typically choose their president," Scruggs said.

When the political system was designed, the Founding Fathers envisioned each state sending its electoral votes to a local or regional favorite. With several candidates vying for the top post, Congress would have the final say, Scruggs said.

"The idea was that the electors were going to use wise judgment," Melcher said.

However, that system quickly degenerated.  

"The idea of electors being robots who are mostly going to vote predictably — that kicks off in 1800," Melcher said.

Jefferson essentially created the notion of voting for an elector who will promise to vote a certain way, Melcher said.

By creating the seeds of political parties, Jefferson also ensured that third-party candidates would have a much tougher time gaining a foothold, Melcher said.

The last time Congress chose the president was in 1824, after a four-way race resulted in no one gaining a majority of electoral votes. After much wheeling and dealing, Congress chose John Quincy Adams as president, Melcher said.

Original article on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.