I strained my back this weekend, partly the result of my desk chair jamming up and no longer able to rise to a comfortable keyboard level, and mostly because I had the brilliant idea of bending at the waist to trim weeds that couldn’t be mowed or even line trimmed because of…nature. Let’s just say nature.
So I tried to rest, popped ibuprofen, and ended up binge-watching VEEP, HBO’s series that just finished its fifth season. I’ve watched it from the beginning, but the seasons drip out episode by episode over 10 weeks, and eventually I realized I’d forgotten how certain characters were introduced, so I went back in time.
None of this is important. You probably don’t watch VEEP, given the content at our fingertips, although if you’re interested in background political stuff and don’t mind some pretty outrageous language (there’s probably a more profane show on one of the premium channels, but maybe not. This is remarkable, anyway), this is fun.
But side from the profanity and general incompetence of nearly everyone, VEEP decided to take the Constitution for a long ride. After a year of frustration at her lack of access and the indignities of being a woman in a boy’s club (they can’t match her language, though), she learns that the president (always POTUS, in dialogue) is not going to run for a second term due to health issues with his wife.
So we get incompetence on a national stage, as she faces off in the primary season against an ex-baseball manager, a clueless junior congressman, a bumbling former Secretary of Defense, and a sitting governor of Minnesota who is not only Asian but an Iraq War vet, which he mentions about every other sentence.
And blah blah blah. She loses Iowa and New Hampshire, but not before POTUS decides to resign, making his VEEP the new POTUS. And new ball game.
She somehow she vaults to the lead and wins the nomination (lots of stuff is skipped, which is why I went back to review, thinking I must have missed something) while trying to look presidential.
Anyway. The general election turns out to be a tie, and the entirety of this latest season was compressed into the time between the November election and January 20, during which time the House of Representatives will choose a president from among the top three candidates, each house delegation getting one, consensus vote; first to 26 is president.
On the other hand, the vice-president doesn’t need to win a majority of electoral votes, just a plurality, and in the case of an Electoral tie he’s picked by the Senate.
In the case of a House tie (some states can’t reach a consensus and abstain being the easiest way to this scenario, unless a strong third-party candidate siphons some votes), assuming a Vice-President has been elected by the Senate, the VEEP-elect becomes the president.
SPOILER ALERT FOR SEASON #5 of VEEP
This is what happened on this last season of VEEP. No president is selected, and then the vote for VEEP goes to the Senate…I’ll stop spoiling.
But even though VEEP is as far from The West Wing as it is from Scandal and the rest, a sitcom devoted to dysfunction, it actually provides a civic lesson.
In the original constitution (Article II, section I), the electoral college and process for picking a president is laid out. In this original version, each elector in the electoral college gets two votes for President. The winner gets to be the top dog; second place is vice-president. Seemed workable.
Except, even as much as our founders feared the rise of factionalism (i.e., political parties), they failed to address that possibility. By our third presidential election, the Federalists (Adams, Hamilton) had lined up in opposition to the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. Since the Federalists cast their first vote for John Adams but then dispersed their second votes, Thomas Jefferson was elected vice-president. The working relationship took a hit from day #1.
But in 1800, the big flaw arose. Once the two parties became established, it was clear that each party’s electors would vote for their choices for president and vice-president, creating a tie (that is, if in 2016 Clinton nominates Tim Kaine for vice-president, back in 1800 they would receive the same amount of electoral votes).
This is what happened in the election of 1800, when Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, tied in just this fashion (even though there was a plan for some electors to switch votes to someone other than Burr to avoid this, the word somehow got lost). It took 35 ballots or so to elect Jefferson, and amendments to the Constitution were being considered.
So we got the 12th amendment, which among other things establishes that electors would have to vote separately for President and Vice-President. It also includes some vague language about what happens in the case of a tie in the House, which I assume is season #6 of VEEP.
Getting a tie in the electoral college is certainly possible (538 is an even number, so it could be 269-269 with 270 required to win). A third candidate with some momentum could toss it into the House because no one got the required 270. The chances of a tie in Congress is remote (the lame-duck Congress would vote) but not impossible. Still, the scenario is fascinating.
Also, the 20th amendment, which moved the Inauguration from March 4 to January 20, tossed in some vague instructions on what happens in the case that a vice-president elect takes the oath of office. In other words, there’s no guarantee s/he will remain so. It’s complicated.
And probably only suitable for a sitcom about politics, but I gotta hand it to them: Along with the laughs, we get a lesson in civics. More of this might make this actually a fun election season.
Section 3. If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.
Section 4. The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.