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Opinion: The Peril of House Selection – Do We Really Want Our Next President Chosen This Way?


Opinion: The Perilous Proposition of House-Selected Presidents

Editor's Doug Jones, former Democratic US Senator from Alabama, shares his personal perspective in this commentary. Explore more opinions at CNN.

Imagine a scenario where the House of Representatives, rather than the voters or the Electoral College, determines the next occupant of the Oval Office. Yes, picture the same tumultuous House of Representatives that recently struggled to select a speaker, teetered on the brink of a government shutdown, and engaged in a three-week saga to fill the speaker's role after an impulsive decision to part ways with Kevin McCarthy. It's the very House of Representatives disapproved of by over two-thirds of Americans. That House.

Various circumstances could lead to such a turn of events. From accidental scenarios like a 269-269 Electoral College tie to the unfortunate passing of a presidential candidate, or even the malicious intent of Congress refusing to certify electors, as witnessed on January 6, 2021. However, there's one cause within our control: the potential impact of a third-party presidential ticket in 2024, spearheaded by political organization No Labels or any other third party.

While the majority of Americans hold unfavorable opinions of the two major parties, experts dismiss the notion that No Labels or any third party could secure enough states to claim an Electoral College majority (270 electoral votes) and win the presidency. Instead, a more plausible outcome is the diversion of independent and moderate votes, splitting the anti-Trump constituency and potentially ushering in a return to the White House for a figure facing criminal charges in multiple jurisdictions, including an attempt to overturn the previous election. (It's worth noting that Trump denies any wrongdoing in these cases.)

As we contemplate the potential consequences of alternative political movements, the prospect of House-selected presidents becomes a cautionary tale, reminding us of the delicate balance required to navigate the intricacies of our electoral system.

Navigating the Nightmare: The Perils of a No Labels Upset in the Electoral College

Consider a seismic shift in the political landscape: What if No Labels or another third party defies expectations, clinching victory in one or two states, or perhaps just securing a single congressional district in Maine or Nebraska? In the intricate dance of electoral math, such a triumph could disrupt the fragile equilibrium of our democracy. If a No Labels ticket manages to snatch even a handful of electors in a closely contested election, it has the potential to obstruct any candidate from securing an Electoral College majority, triggering a constitutional mandate that empowers the House of Representatives to select the president.

Crucially, in this scenario, there is no constitutional obligation for the House to align with either the popular vote or the winner of the electoral vote. The Constitution mandates a state delegation vote in the House, with each state wielding one vote. Despite Democrats potentially regaining control of the House, the Republicans' current dominance in state delegations creates a built-in advantage. Thus, even if No Labels achieves a groundbreaking upset without clinching an outright majority in the Electoral College (an improbable feat), the consequence would be a reenactment of recent speakership turmoil, but with far-reaching implications.

This potential scenario, termed a "contingent election," promises chaos unparalleled in modern politics. The Constitution provides scant guidance on the process, stating only that the House must choose from the top three finishers in the Electoral College. With zero federal laws governing contingent elections beyond this basic framework, House members would be tasked with devising procedures essentially from scratch, echoing a precedent set in 1825.

The lack of fixed rules opens the door to manipulation and abuse, as witnessed in the recent House drama where a handful of members held sway over the entire process. The potential for obstructionism looms large, where a minority faction could wield disproportionate influence, stalling the presidential vote and obstructing the peaceful transfer of power. As the prospect of a No Labels upset hovers on the horizon, the fragility of our electoral system comes into stark relief, raising urgent questions about the safeguards necessary to protect the democratic integrity of our nation.

Unraveling the Nightmare: The Perils of a Time-Crunched Contingent Election

As we fast-forward to January 2025, the clock becomes a merciless adversary in the face of potential chaos. With a mere 17 days at its disposal, the House would grapple with the Herculean task of selecting a new speaker, orchestrating the joint session with the Senate to count electoral votes, formulating rules for a contingent election, and conducting presidential ballots until a majority of state delegations emerge victorious. For context, the recent speaker vacancy extended over 22 days, underscoring the tight timeframe and potential for extended deadlock.

The specter of recent history looms large as we contemplate this convoluted process. The aftermath of the last electoral vote count witnessed objections, obstruction, and the shocking events of a failed insurrection. While Congress has endeavored to address some vulnerabilities in the Electoral Count Act, the risk of a contested outcome persists, especially considering the active role played by some members in challenging the 2020 election results.

Failing to meet the 17-day deadline would usher in an unprecedented scenario—a vacant presidency on Inauguration Day, marking an unprecedented lapse in U.S. history. The potential for conflict over presidential succession in the absence of a clear victor could intensify, creating a leadership vacuum amidst mounting international and national security threats, and even raising the specter of domestic upheaval and violence.

Amidst these perils, a critical gap in the contingency plan emerges. If, before the House vote, one of the three eligible candidates meets an untimely demise, there exists no legal mechanism to replace them, such as with their running mate. The affected party is summarily excluded from the presidential election, introducing a disturbing potential for a categorical shift in power based on a tragic event—a scenario fundamentally at odds with democratic principles.

In this perilous dance with uncertainty, No Labels appears to view a contingent election as a viable route to power, seemingly disregarding the potential catastrophic consequences for democracy. Their characterization of the contingent election process as a demonstration of the "unlikely path" to the Oval Office reveals an attitude that is not only self-serving but also perilously dismissive of the inherent risks involved. As the nation teeters on the brink of a potentially explosive constitutional crisis, the urgency of safeguarding the democratic bedrock becomes more pronounced than ever.

A Wake-Up Call: Safeguarding Democracy in Troubled Times

The tumultuous aftermath of the last presidential election serves as a stark reminder: the stability of our democracy is not an assurance we can take lightly. Concurrently, the persistent dysfunction within the House underscores a concerning reality—its members often falter in executing even the most fundamental aspects of governance. In this landscape, warning lights are ablaze, signaling a precarious journey toward a potential crisis. The lessons of recent history implore us not to be passive bystanders in the face of looming challenges.

Acknowledging the multifaceted pathways through which our next president might ascend to power is crucial. Yet, this recognition must be accompanied by a sobering acknowledgment, especially by entities like No Labels, that not all avenues ensure the preservation of our democracy. The urgency to act, to safeguard the integrity of our democratic institutions, is not merely a call to attention but a resounding plea to confront the looming crisis with diligence and foresight. As the nation grapples with the evolving landscape of its political future, the imperative is clear: we cannot afford to sleepwalk into uncertainty. The very essence of our democracy hangs in the balance, demanding vigilance and collective action.

Defending Democracy Demands Vigilance and Unity

In the unfolding narrative of our democracy, recent events and the dysfunction within the House serve as cautionary tales. The aftermath of the last presidential election underscores the fragility of our democratic institutions, emphasizing that stability is not an unassailable guarantee. Simultaneously, the ongoing struggles within the House reveal a concerning incapacity to fulfill even the most basic responsibilities of governance.

Amidst these warning signs, the flashing red lights demand our attention. We stand at the precipice of a potential crisis, and the lessons of the past insist that we cannot afford complacency. Recognizing the myriad pathways through which our next president may emerge is essential, but it is equally imperative for all, especially entities like No Labels, to understand that not all routes guarantee the preservation of our democracy.

As the nation grapples with an uncertain political future, the call to action is clear: we must not sleepwalk into this crisis. Safeguarding the integrity of our democratic principles requires diligence, foresight, and collective commitment. The urgency to defend democracy is not merely a suggestion; it is an impassioned plea to confront challenges head-on, ensuring that our democratic institutions emerge unscathed. In unity lies our strength, and in vigilant stewardship, we fortify the foundation upon which our democracy rests.