Season 4 of Veep ended with Selina Meyer, the titular VP, as president—but just barely. Having ascended to the highest office in the land without actually ever being voted president by the people, she faces an uncertain re-election. But at the end of the night—and the end of the season—her future is no clearer: She and Senator Bill O’Brien are tied.
The twist was a particularly clever bit of unintentional collaboration between the writers of the show and the writers of the Constitution. In the highly-unlikely-but-mathematically-possible event of a 269-269 tie of the 538 available electoral votes (something that has happened—but not in nearly two centuries) it is possible that Selina’s too-likable Vice President Tom James could wind up in the Oval Office instead of her. In the final moments of the season—with the credits rolling—Selina scoffs at James to watch his behavior if he does leapfrog her for the presidency.
“If that does happen, wanna be my veep?” he asks, possibly telegraphing a brilliantly engineered way for the show to stay faithful to the premise, right?
Well, not so much. And that’s probably for the best.
Even before the fate of the presidency is shunted off to Congress, a tied election would require the actual electoral delegates to gather and cast their votes. Many states have laws in place requiring them to vote in accordance with the popular vote—but not all states do. If even one Elector in an unregulated state changed his or her vote, the tie would be broken and the presidency determined. But what if this stays a tie, as the show assumes it will?
As Veep explains, the House of Representatives would be then tasked with voting on the president—with each state casting a single vote, instead of proportional representation. In reality, this would almost certainly result in a Republican presidency since their party typically controls more states, if less-populated ones. But suspending belief is not too much to ask from a TV audience. So, sure, say the House is stuck in a tie, too. It’s true, that while the House was voting on the president, the Senate would have been voting on a Vice President. And if the House stayed locked in a tie while the Senate succeeded in electing someone (the impossibly-charismatic Tom James, for example), then that Vice President-elect would serve as President—but only until the House could reach a majority. Or as Section 3 of 20th Amendment says (emphasis added):
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...
So while Tom James could theoretically serve as an interim President, the House would have to eventually elect either Selina or Bill O’Brien. And even though an effective demotion back to the Vice Presidency for our heroine and her amoral staffers might satisfy the show’s central conceit and commitment to futility, another shot at the Oval Office would make for better television.
Selina is mean. Her staffers are sort of sad in their single-minded devotion to an empty cause. If they’re not failing up together, then a show that is already satirically cynical about the state of politics would become more of a disappointing portrayal of a group of an unlikable losers. We need to believe that Selina’s caustic criticism of the people closest to her belie an underlying faith in their borderline hapless competency. Or else, why would she bother? (And why should we?) And even if she won’t admit to that, the show should.
The tie was a brilliant piece of television writing that sets up Season 5 to start in the sort of gridlocked, impotent purgatory that allows us to appreciate the Meyer administration’s frequent behind-the-scenes floundering. I hope the show rests in this uncomfortable place for as long as possible. But they will have to decide the election eventually, and Selina can’t be veep again. She will either win or lose the presidency—and can you imagine her in the private sector?