I don't mean an electoral college tie. There’s probably about a 1 in 500 chance of one of those this year, and the consequences are thoroughly explored. I mean both candidates getting the same number of votes in a swing state. How unlikely is it?
Several researchers—including Silver himself—have calculated the odds of a state winner being decided by a single vote, which is effectively the same as the probability of a tie vote. For typical close states, the linked article calculates the probabilities to be in the neighborhood of 1 in 100,000—which makes intuitive sense, since 100,000 is the sort of vote margin by which swing state elections are typically decided.
But what if the tie happens anyway?
For that matter, what if there’s a tie in every close battleground state?
Well, for starters, recounts happen. But since recounts happen in close elections in general, these are just as likely to create ties as to break them. They don’t change the underlying probability. So let’s assume that after all recounts, there’s a tie. What then?
The short answer is that it’s up to the state’s laws.
I went through the general laws of nine competitive states to see how they handle popular vote ties. In most of them, the tie is broken by “drawing lots”—that is, randomly. (If you’re curious, here are links to some tie vote laws in each state: Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin,Colorado, Iowa, Nevada).
“Drawing lots” can mean a coin toss, drawing straws, or picking a name from a hat. Most states leave the details up to the Secretary of State or an electoral board, although Iowa Code 50.44 specifies that the names be written on pieces of paper and placed in a “receptacle”. In North Carolina, however, a tie vote (when more than 5,000 votes are cast) results in a new election. (Which could potentially itself result in a tie ...)
But let’s imagine that there’s not just one state that’s tied—instead, thenine most competitive states are tied (and the rest go as expected). If North Carolina held a runoff to break the tie, and the other eight states flipped coins (or picked from Iowa’s receptacle), Obama would be reelected in 431 out of 512 cases—about 84% of the time.
What do you think? Any chance it happens this year? Should these rules be changed? What should we change them to? Tell us in the comments section below...