Thanks to an almost forgotten American institution -- the electoral college -- the tightest presidential race since the Kennedy-Nixon squeaker of 1960 has turned into the strangest contest since Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland.
Many Americans are recalling for the first time since high school that the actual choice of who serves as president of the United States resides not with them, but with a group of men and women who cast their ballots more than a month after the general election.
In fact, some members of Congress are now boasting that ultimate authority sits in their hands, since the Constitution assigns the House and Senate the job of settling indecision within the electoral college.
If this were a normal presidential-election year, the nation's 538 electors would travel on Dec. 18 to their state capitals -- usually to the governor's office -- to rubberstamp the results of the popular vote. But this year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's lead in Florida has created the likelihood that the next president could be the runner-up in the general election.
Bush, who carried the majority of the states -- 29 so far -- received fewer votes in the nation as a whole than Vice President Al Gore. But under the electoral-college system he could still win the presidency.
Not since 1888 -- 112 years ago -- has the popular-vote winner lost the election. That year, the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland, carried less than half the states. But by winning his home state of New York and other densely populated areas by large margins, he racked up more votes than the eventual winner of the presidential race, Republican Benjamin Harrison.
If Bush takes Florida and the backing of its 25 Republican electors, he will secure 271 electoral-college votes, two more than he needs to become president. Gore, who has won 20 states, will be left with 267.Although the founding fathers had no fear of such a scenario -- they planned for an unbiased slate of electors to choose the best person for the job -- the modern two-party system has almost always assured that the winner of the popular vote also carried the electoral college.
The year's unusual events are causing nearly everyone to discard long-held assumptions and to contemplate a multitude of outcomes. It has been so long since the nation faced an upset like this that the prospect has driven pundits, politicians and lawyers to dust off history books and bone up on election law, while the media turns members of the electoral college into celebrities.
"I though it was an insignificant, little job I was getting," said Paulee Lipsman, a Democrat elector from Iowa. Like most, Lipsman is a long-time political activist and is serving in the electoral college for the first time.
For nine days after the election, it looked as if Iowa's seven Democratic electors might be hung up in a Florida-style stalemate. But last Thursday, the Bush campaign decided not to request a recount in Iowa. By the latest tally Gore has won the state by just 4,147 votes out of more than 1.2 million.
Electoral-college votes are divvied up according to the size of each state's Congressional delegation. Like 47 other states and the District of Columbia, Iowa awards all its votes to the winner of the state's popular election. (Two states, Maine and Nebraska, award some electors by Congressional district, allowing a candidate who succeeds in one part of the state to receive a vote, while the statewide winner takes the majority.)
Like all electors, Lipsman was chosen by her state party. She said she "never would consider" changing her allegiance, although she is starting to agree with those who would do away with the institution altogether. "There's something inherently wrong with a system that allows the one who got the most votes to come in second," she said.
If a 271-267 electoral college split holds, Bush's margin of victory will be the slimmest since 1876, when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden by just one vote. That contest became so messy, it was finally decided by a special Congressional commission.
Already some Republicans in Congress are threatening to annul Florida's electoral votes if they are cast for Gore, creating the possibility that the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold the majority, would ultimately pick the next president. According to the Constitution, when one candidate cannot secure an absolute majority in the electoral college, the House elects the winner, with each state getting one vote. The Senate settles ties for vice president.
In another unlikely scenario proposed by Democrats, Gore could win the presidency if Florida fails to seat any electors by Dec. 18. Since a candidate need only carry "a majority of the whole number of electors appointed," Gore would defeat Bush by at least 11 votes.
Other Democrats have bandied about the prospect that three Bush electors, swayed by Gore's more numerous popular votes or other arguments, could switch their vote to the Vice President, giving him just enough to win.
"I am going to suggest to you that more that three electors are going to vote in favor of Gore," said Democrat Mark McQuate of Green Bay, who will represent Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District in the electoral college. McQuate, an ardent Gore supporter, is of a mind that it is unconscionable for a majority of the electoral college to vote for Bush. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, electors in 26 states, including Wisconsin, are bound by law or by pledge to vote for their party's candidate. But these laws and oaths are probably unenforceable and may be unconstitutional, says Michael White, an attorney at the Archives who oversees the electoral college.
Bruce Bredeman is a Republican elector representing Missouri's 9th Congressional district. Missouri electors have no legal obligation to vote for a specific candidate.
"From my perspective, I was elected by my peers in the party to represent the 9th District if the Republicans prevailed in Missouri. That's what I am going to do," he said. "In the normal electoral process, there is nothing that would make me change my vote."
As might be expected, Bredeman is a staunch supporter of the electoral college. "The main reason I like it is that it protects the sovereignty of the states," he said. "The majority-rule thing, that's overrated."
Only nine times since the current rules have been in place have electors switched, White said, and in almost every case they vote for a third party. "None of them in this century have involved a switch to the other major-party candidate," White said.
Most recently, a 1988 Democratic elector from West Virginia voted for Lloyd Bentsen, Michael Dukakis's running mate, for president and chose Dukakis for vice president. She said she was disappointed in the way Dukakis ran his campaign.
What happens if an elector doesn't show up? Assuming Bush carries Florida and wins the electoral college 271 to 267, would he end up in a tie if just four of his electors don't make it to the statehouse?
Fortunately, most states have allowed for such an eventuality and have provisions in their laws that allow the parties to select replacements, even at the last minute. "They literally have to pull in someone from the hall sometimes and swear them in," White said.