Three ways Election Day could get ugly

SANDY SPRINGS, GA - MARCH 06: A local resident casts her vote at a polling station in St Andrew Presbyterian Church March 6, 2012 in Sandy Springs, Georgia. Ten states, including Georgia, hold caucuses and primaries today for voters to pick their choices for the Republican presidential nominee.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

There isn't any polling to back it up, but trust us on this one: After roughly two years of campaigning, a deluge of campaign ads, and enough media coverage of President Obama and Mitt Romney to make a four-year-old cry, most Americans would really like the presidential election to come to an end on November 6.

But while it's likely that we'll know who has won the White House on Election Day - or, at least, by the early hours of the following day - it's far from certain. Below, we discuss three Election Day possibilities that could either keep the battle going beyond next Tuesday or prompt a national conversation about what some call a broken system.

An Electoral Vote Split

There are 538 electoral votes available to the candidates in the Electoral College. Why 538? It has to do with the fact that states are allotted electoral votes based on how many members they send to Congress. Every state starts with two electoral votes for their two senators, and then gets an electoral vote for each member it sends to the House. Add up the 100 senators and 435 representatives, and you get 535 electoral votes. Add in the three votes allocated to the District of Columbia, which does not have voting representation in Congress, and you're at 538.

One problem with that number, from an electoral perspective, is that it's even - which means that it's possible that a presidential election could yield an electoral vote tie. There are a number of ways the candidates could end up with 269 electoral votes each. (You can play with the iterations here, and see some other possibilities here.) The most likely scenario involves Mr. Obama winning the battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire as well as the states he is expected to win, while Romney takes the remaining battlegrounds (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia) and the states he is expected to win.  

So what happens if there's a tie? Under the Twelfth Amendment, the newly-elected House of Representatives decides the president, with each state's delegation getting to cast one vote. Republicans are now the majority in 33 delegations, the Washington Post reports, while Democrats are the majority in 16. Republicans are widely expected to maintain control of the House, which means they are also likely to maintain their edge in terms of how many state delegations they control. And that suggests that a tie is likely to result in Romney being declared president. (Though if Mr. Obama wins the popular vote while splitting the Electoral College, members of the House will face pressure to follow the will of the people.)

The vice president, meanwhile, would be decided by the Senate - which Democrats are expected to maintain narrowly after Election Day. That raises the possibility of Romney taking the presidency but seeing the vice presidential slot go not to his running mate, Paul Ryan, but instead to the man who currently holds that office: Joe Biden.

A split between the electoral and popular vote

While national polls show the presidential race roughly even, state polls show Mr. Obama with a small edge in a number of battlegrounds. That raises the possibility of the following scenario: Mr. Obama takes more than 270 electoral votes thanks to narrow victories in a majority of the battleground states while Romney takes more votes overall, thanks in part to overwhelming victories in the deeply red states in the South. That would result in Mr. Obama winning reelection despite coming in second place in the national vote. When you consider that Mr. Obama is expected to win the big blue states by smaller margins than he did in 2008, such a scenario seems even less farfetched. (A situation in which Romney wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote is also possible, though it's far less likely.)

Such an outcome would prompt some Republican outcry, but it probably won't be too loud: In 2000, after all, George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore. What it would also potentially do is kick start a national conversation about whether it's time to effectively ditch the Electoral College. Due in part to frustration that only a handful of states get much attention from presidential candidates, there has been a push to make sure whoever wins the most votes wins the presidency; under a proposal known as the National Popular Vote bill, the states would agree to allocate their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. Though nine states (including the electoral behemoth that is California) have agreed to the plan, not enough have done so for it to take effect. If the presidency once again goes to the person who came in second place, however - for the second time in the past four elections - the movement could pick up steam.  

An effective tie in a key state

Picture this: With the vote settled in 49 states and the District of Columbia, neither candidate has the 270 electoral votes they need to take the presidency. In the remaining state - we're going to use Ohio in this example, since it's generally considered to be the most crucial battleground in the race - the vote margin is razor-thin. And suddenly the nation is plunged into a sequel to the battle that took place in Florida after the 2000 election, when lawyers poured into the state to battle for every vote and the election ultimately had to be decided by the Supreme Court.