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electoral college

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Cleveland, Sunday November 4, 2012.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Would Joe want to be Mitt's bucket of warm spit? It could happen.

Democrat Joe Biden might be able to choose himself to be vice-president to Republican president Mitt Romney.

If Tuesday's presidential election ends in a tie, then a convoluted set of events will unfold that gives Congress the power to pick the president and vice-president – which could leave Mr. Biden with the oddest of choices.

It's an improbable, but not impossible, outcome in the arcane U.S. election system.

Americans aren't really picking the president when they vote Tuesday.

Rather in each state, they are selecting a slate of electors. A tie is possible. The national popular vote doesn't matter; rather there's a presidential race in each state.

The slates of state electors total 538, so the magic number to win is 270.

Each state gets at least three electors, one for each senator (and each state has two) and one for each member of the House of Representatives, ranging from one in sparsely-populated Delaware, Wyoming and Washington D.C. (which isn't a state and doesn't have senators but still gets three electors) up to 53 in California, by far the most populous state.

Among the key swing states, Florida has 29 electors; Ohio, 18; Virginia, 13; Wisconsin, 10; and Colorado, 9. Those 79 electoral votes will determine the outcome and, perhaps, whether there is a tie.

In the event of a 269-269 tie – and mathematically there are many ways for that to happen even though it never has – then deciding the presidency shifts to Congress.

That's where the improbable but possible scenario of Mr. Romney as president and Mr. Biden as his vice-president could play out next January.

Electors in the electoral college gather in December to vote. In most, but not all, states they are required by law to vote in accordance with the election outcome. But so-called "faithless" electors regularly crop up. In fact in nine of the past 16 presidential elections at least one "faithless" elector has voted against the election outcome. It has never mattered in determining who was president.

Assuming no rogue electors and a tie outcome, then under the 12th Amendment of the Constitution, the task of sending someone to the Oval Office falls to Congress.

The House of Representatives chooses the president; the Senate chooses the vice-president.

In the House, the Republicans currently control a majority. While it will be the new Congress – the one elected Tuesday and sworn in Jan. 3, 2013 – that would pick the president, a Republican majority in the House of Representatives seems likely and would almost certainly choose Mr. Romney.

In the Senate, the Democrats currently have a majority – albeit slim – and if they retain it on Tuesday, they would likely pick Mr. Biden.

But, supposing after Tuesday's election, the current Democratic majority in the Senate is reduced to a 50-50 tie.

Then, as the sitting vice president, Mr. Biden would hold the tie breaking vote and would have to choose between four more years as vice-president – this time to Mr. Romney – and handing over the job to Mr. Romney's running mate, Republican Paul Ryan.

If such a choice comes to pass, Mr. Biden might remember as he ponders his choices that John Nance Garner, who was vice-president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once famously described the job as not being "worth a bucket of warm spit." In fact, Mr. Gardner, a rather colourful Texan, later complained that the media had cleaned up his quote.