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What if there was a Nancy Pelosi presidency? | COMMENTARY

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) talks to reporters during her weekly news conference in the House Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 1.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) talks to reporters during her weekly news conference in the House Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 1. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/TNS)

With COVID-19 spreading, the campaign intensifying and the president recovering from the virus, there’s both confusion and concern about the outcome of the election. For those of us in Baltimore there is one outcome that is particularly intriguing — the possible presidency of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

There are two potential outcomes that make that possible: the president is incapacitated and cannot govern or no presidential candidate wins the election.

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The first is simple — if President Trump is incapacitated, there is a recognized process where succession flows first to the vice president and then in order to the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Temp and a string of Cabinet officers. With the president still recovering and his vice president daring fate by planning campaign trips across the country exposing himself to the same virus that took down his boss, the next person in line is Baltimore’s own Speaker Pelosi.

The second scenario results from an uncertain disputed or deadlocked electoral outcome. Here’s a simplified analysis of that very convoluted process.

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On Nov. 3 voters will cast their ballots for president through “electors” who represent their favorite candidates. Millions have already cast their ballots by early voting or mailed ballots. Electors are distributed according to the size of the state’s congressional delegation.

Members of the Electoral College meet in their own state Capitol on Dec. 14 and cast their state’s popular vote usually on a take it all basis. On some rare occasions electors cast their vote independently for someone else. They are called “faithless” electors but have never impacted the states results. The tallies are authenticated and sent to a number of authorities, most importantly to the Congress.

On Jan. 3, the new 117th Congress is sworn in.

Three days later on Jan. 6, the new joint session of Congress meets to certify the state electors. If no candidate secures a majority of electors, the Constitution calls for the House of Representative to pick the president and the Senate to pick the vice president. The Senate votes individually and a majority of 51 votes are required to win.

The House of Representatives votes by states with each state casting one vote until a candidate receives a majority of state delegations, or 26 states. States with tied delegations, like Pennsylvania, lose their vote. California with a delegation of 53 and Wyoming with one cast the same single vote. The House has picked a president on two occasions — the most complicated in 1801 when it took 36 ballots for the House to select Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. The stalemate was broken after Alexander Hamilton persuaded a couple of members to switch their vote giving Jefferson the majority. This was a major factor leading to the duel between Hamilton and Burr so vividly performed in the play “Hamilton.”

It should be noted that although Democrats currently hold a substantial majority of House members, Republicans control a majority of state delegations — 26 to 23, with one tied. Meanwhile, while the House is voting to pick a president, the Senate votes to select the vice president. The Senate votes by individuals requiring a majority to win. Republicans with 53 members control the current Senate.

On Jan. 20 is the presidential inauguration, but if the House fails to select a president by then, the law requires the vice president to elect to become acting president until the House selects the president. If, however, the Senate has failed to select a vice president and the House has not elected a president, under the Presidential Succession Act, the Speaker of the House becomes acting president. It is this scenario — if the Electoral College, Senate, and House end up with total institutional deadlock — that would elevate Speaker Pelosi to acting president of the country.

The irony is that this convoluted process was conceived by Framers of the Constitution to create an Electoral College composed of independent members and the House, the legislative body closest to the people, to prevent the prospect of an aggressive minority or an angry mob, losing their collective minds, and electing a demagogue with despotic ambitions. Sound familiar!

But now, if the Framers cautiously conceived intention to protect our democracy from lapsing into an autocracy, inadvertently produces the first woman president, even acting, who happens to be from Baltimore — then let us toast our Founding Fathers.

Ted Venetoulis (Ted.Venetoulis@gmail.com) is former Baltimore County Executive and author of “The House Shall Choose — a history of the elections determined in the House of Representatives" and “Hail to the Cheat,” a political satire.

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