Consider a hypothetical scenario in which there are eight Supreme Court justices at the time election results are being determined (ie, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat has not been filled and there is no possibility for a tie-breaker vote). In the event that election results are contested (not unlike Bush vs Gore in 2000), what happens? Specifically, what happens if there is a 4-4 tie in the Supreme Court?
Most cases never go straight to the Supreme Court; it only has original jurisdiction over a very small subset of cases, as described in the US Constitution. Outside of those areas, they are always heard by at least one other court first before being appealed to the Supreme Court.
If there is a tie in the Supreme Court, the ruling of the lower court stands, whatever that ruling was.
The decision of the lower court stands. The Supreme court acts as the final court of appeal in such matters (it is not a dispute between states, for example). Therefore a lower court will already have made a judgement, and it is has been appealed to the Supreme court. For the appeal to succeed, there must be a majority in the court. If the court splits 4-4 then the decision of the lower court stands.
I attempted to construct a scenario where election law breaks down because the supreme court can't issue a ruling. Normally, the result would be either the lower court stands or status quo ante; but we can avoid these cases.
If we have a broad-scope issue on a presidential election, so that two cases can begin at the same time in different appellate circuits, and the case is novel enough that we can't provide any meaningful status quo ante, then the fallout is going to be very bad. The consequence of an unresolved circuit split is the law itself is divided depending on which district. For a congressional election, this is not a major problem as each congressional district is its own election.
It would appear the same is true of a presidential election as well because of the electoral college. However, this is not necessarily the case as there are are federal laws that would apply directly to any candidate. Should one of them be breached, bad things happen.
It is my hypothesis that should the supreme court fail, one of two things would happen. Either the House would appoint a special panel of judges to hear the case, or the house would decide the result of the election as though it were the case there was no majority of votes in the electoral college. The House does in fact have the power to reject the results of the electoral college on suspicion of tampering, and the panel of judges has some precedent. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_Commission_(United_States)
Presidential elections are governed by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution as amended, which states in the pertinent part (prior to amendment):
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.
The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.
A portion of Article II, section 1 of the Constitution was superseded by the 12th amendment.
The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; -- the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; -- The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
A portion of this was in turn superseded by part of the XXth Amendment which states in the pertinent parts:
The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.
If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. 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; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.
The prevailing interpretation of these constitutional provision is that the U.S. House of Representatives (or arguably, the Congress, in joint session) has non-justiciable (i.e. not court reviewable) authority to decide which of the ballots sent to the President of the Senate shall be counted in cases in which there is any doubt.
This interpretation is widely accepted because the same doctrine applies to resolution of disputed House and Senate elections were are resolved politically by the members of the respective houses in something that has come up and been litigated numerous times.
Each of the 50 states conducts its election for electoral college delegates independently of every other state (and the District of Columbia also conducts an election for electoral college delegates). There are 51 distinct issues (really 57 since there are multiple electoral college delegate contests in Maine and Nebraska).
No later than the date upon which electoral voters are cast by members of the electoral college (in early December), the Courts no longer have a say in the matter, at least not a binding one.
It is conceivable that a state court appealed on up to the state supreme court and a U.S. District Court appealed on up to the U.S. Court of Appeal for the circuit containing the state in question could reach mutually contradictory orders for state election officials, and that a tied U.S. Supreme Court could affirm both the U.S. Court of Appeal ruling and the State Supreme Court ruling, with one ruling implying one slate of electoral college delegates and another ruling implying another slate of electoral college delegates, in the roughly one month between the November 3, 2020 election and the date that electoral voters are cast in state capitols.
In that situation, most likely both slates of electoral college delegates could cast their votes at the appointed time and send them to the President of the Senate. The House could then decision which of the slates of electoral college delegates to count, if that was necessary to determine which Presidential candidate and which Vice Presidential candidate win. If the disputed electoral college delegates don't change the outcome, then the House was be honor bound the declare the correct winner anyway.
In the counting process, it doesn't matter what other court rulings said about which electoral votes should be counted, the decision of Congress while voting prevails. It doesn't have to delegate the decision to any other body or use any particular process to do this.
- Whoever wins the Electoral College is president unless the vote tally is challenged
- If the tally is challenged, then the tally after the court decision decides the winner
- If the courts have not changed the tally (eg lower courts did not and supreme court is tied or doesn't overturn the decision) then the winner is president
- If the tally is tied after all court action then the House of Representatives chooses the president
The constitution already defines the rules for what happens if the electoral college vote does not produce a clear winner (presumably because of a tie).
If there were a challenge to the electoral college vote (presumably invalidating some votes and breaking a tie) then the constitution would apply and the College winner would be president. But, and this only makes sense if the college is tied and the Supreme Court did not break the tie (possibly because of a tied judgement there) then the rules are clear.
The relevant section of the 12th amendment states (with the part relevant to the situation where the Electoral College being unclear in italics):
The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote
What this means is that–if the Electoral College result is tied–the House of Representatives gets to choose the President but the tally is counted with one vote per state where the vote is determined by the majority of representatives from each state.
That's pretty convoluted but not something a court can overthrow. So, if the Supremes don't invalidate a tied Electoral College, then that is what will happen.