Hanging the Electoral College is not, as a first glance might suggest, a proposal for using an old-fashioned method of execution on the persons responsible for representing states in the selection of the President of the United States. Instead, it occurs where the presence of multiple candidates prevents any one candidate from achieving an absolute majority of the Electoral College.

As of 2008, there are 538 electoral votes, and a candidate must win 270 electoral votes to win the Presidency. However, if, because of a three-way split, no candidate gets over 270 votes, this calls into action the provisions of United States Constitution Amendment XII. Under the provisions of this Amendment, the election is thrown to the United States House of Representatives to decide, with each state having one vote for its entire delegation. The field is leveled: California with its 50+ electoral votes gets one vote, and New York, Texas, and Illinois have exactly the same voting power as Montana, Wyoming, and New Hampshire. Furthermore, Amendment XII dictates that Congress must choose from among the top three recipients of electoral votes, and the candidate chosen must receive the support of the majority of all delegations (at this time, 26 votes).

The Amendment XII procedure has only been used once in American History, in 1824. With four candidates splitting the electoral vote among them, Congress chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson (though Jackson had been the leading vote-getter and had won the largest number of electoral votes).

In the presidential election of 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace campaigned hard in the South as a third party candidate with the strategy of hanging the Electoral College. Although Wallace won 46 electoral votes, Richard Nixon's overwhelming victory in the rest of the country gave Nixon a clear majority in the Electoral College.

There are two ways that an electoral college can become hung. As mentioned above, one of them is a three-way split. But, since the electoral college currently has 538 votes, it can be divided evenly in half, leading to a tied electoral college, at 269 votes apiece. Since neither candidate has a majority, this would head to congress to be decided.

There are 56 units in the United States' electoral college system (the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the five districts of Maine and Nebraska, that use the Congressional District Method), and they range in value from 1 electoral vote (for Maine and Nebraska's single congressional districts) to California's 55 electoral votes. Someone skilled at mathematics could figure out how many combinations of those yield a tie. On a practical level, however, not all electoral college results are plausible. But there are still a few foreseeable cases where a tied electoral college could happen.

I would say that this is a small detail that we can probably put out of our mind, but I have been wrong before.

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