This is famous for the then-Governor of Texas, George Bush, defeating sitting Vice-President, Al Gore, due to a controversy over hanging chads in Florida. But there was much more going on.
In the Electoral College, Bush got 271 votes to Gore's 266, with one Elector - in the District of Columbia - abstaining, despite being pledged to support Gore. Florida, with its 25 votes, would have enabled Gore to win by 291 to 246.
However, the states where Gore won by the narrowest margins - New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa - had 23 votes between them. If Bush had won these (which could be achieved with just 5,112 voters - less than 0.005% of the total voters - switching), with Gore winning Florida, then Bush would have 269 votes to Gore's 268. Before you assume that Bush could have claimed victory, remember Gore's faithless former friend. Her vote has to be taken into account, and Bush would win 269 votes out of a possible 538.
To be elected President at this stage, a candidate needs an absolute majority - so 270 or more votes. If no-one manages that, then the matter is referred to the House of Representatives that was elected at the same time. There crucial thing here is that votes at this second stage are cast by state delegation.
The House of Representatives elected in 2000 had 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats, as well as 2 Independents (Bernie Sanders, who was the sole Representative for Vermont, which he now represents in the Senate, and Virgil Goode, a Representative for Virginia who represented the area around Charlottesville, and who had been originally a Democrat but by the November 2002 election was a Republican).
But more important than the numbers is where they represent. If a state had a Republican majority in its delegation, then it would have voted for Bush. If a Democrat majority, then Gore. If evenly split, then it would have abstained.
The numbers give us:
- Bush - 28
- Gore - 18 (including Vermont)
- Abstained - 4 (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Nevada)
Just as with the Electoral College, what matters here is getting an absolute majority, i.e. 26 votes. Given that states may have to abstain, we can see that it is possible that even with 2 candidates, there is no winner. Bush only needed to lose 3 states for this to occur.
What we need to look at are states where the Republicans had a majority of 1 or 2 Representatives. If they had a majority of 1, then the loss of their most vulnerable seat to the Democrats would flip the state delegation to voting for Gore. If a majority of 2, then (except for Virginia), this would lead to the state delegation abstaining.
The states with a majority of 1 were Alaska, Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming, while those with a majority of 2 were Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia (which is the only one of these to return an odd number of Representatives).
And we find there are 3 seats in these states where the Republican lead is less than 5% over the Democrats:
- In Missouri's 6th district, Sam Graves had a majority of 11,133
- In Montana, Dennis Rehberg had a majority of 30,447
- In Virginia's 2nd district, Ed Schrock had a majority of 7,528
This situation could arise with just 24,556 voters switching.
Graves and Rehberg failing to be elected would lead to Missouri and Montana voting for Gore, bringing him to 20. If Schrock failed to be elected, Virginia would return 5 Republicans, 5 Democrats and 1 Independent. Goode would be in the incredibly powerful position of whether to give the state delegation vote to Bush (in which case he would have 26 states and win) or Gore (in which case the House of Representatives would have failed to elect a President).
Oh well, if there's no President, then at least the Vice-President can take over till the mess is sorted out. With the Electoral College failing to choose one, all the Senate needed to do was to decide between the Republican Dick Cheney, at the time a former Secretary of Defense, and the Democrat Joe Lieberman, at the time a Senator for Connecticut. And as a result of the election, there were 50 Republican and 50 Democrat Senators. Ah, a tie. There is an interesting article on what happens if there is a tie in the Senate.
It would not have taken many votes to change hands in 2000 for the situation of both the Electoral College and Congress failing to elect a President and a Vice-President.
What I expect the sequence of events would have been is this - Dennis Hastert of Illinois, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, would have found himself on Inauguration Day as the highest person in the line of succession, and therefore he would have taken the oath as Acting President. He could then nominate a Vice-President - logically either Bush (as a fellow Republican) or Gore (as winner of the popular vote). Once ratification was complete, there would be someone higher than Hastert in the line of succession (Vice-President is above Speaker) and whomever Hastert had chosen would complete the term of office.