What if Electoral College ends in a tie? Let's just say it's complicated.

Erie Day School fifth-grader Therese McCarthy of Millcreek Township, Pa., holds a sign representing Pennsylvania during a mock Electoral College lesson at the school in Erie, Pa., on Nov. 2, 2012. Andy Colwell/Erie Times-News/AP

If the latest polls are right, President Obama could lose the popular vote on Election Day, yet score big in the Electoral College, racking up well beyond the 270 votes needed to win the presidency. The GOP's Mitt Romney has a steeper path to victory that requires a near sweep of 2012 battleground states.

But there are at least five combinations of wins and losses in toss-up states that could also produce a tie, 269 to 269, when the Electoral College convenes on Jan. 6. It's also possible that one or two so-called "unfaithful electors" could vote contrary to the results in their state.

In such a case, a Congress widely viewed as dysfunctional would choose the next occupant of the White House, with no requirement to respect the popular vote. If those decisions follow party lines, the outcome could be politically toxic. If Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, as expected, Mr. Romney would get their nod for president, and a Democratic-controlled Senate could give Joe Biden a second term as vice president, this time in a GOP administration. There's even a gridlock scenario that has Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, or Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah serving as acting US president, if the House can't decide. As for what happens if the Senate can't decide, that's a disputed issue among experts on congressional procedure: If the usual Senate procedures apply, a tie vote over whether Vice President Biden or Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin becomes vice president could be broken by Mr. Biden.  

Here are four ways that a 269-to-269 tie in the Electoral College could play out in the 2012 presidential election.

1. How the Electoral College vote could end in a tie

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    Erie Day School fifth-grader Therese McCarthy of Millcreek Township, Pa., holds a sign representing Pennsylvania during a mock Electoral College lesson at the school in Erie, Pa., on Nov. 2.

    Andy Colwell/Erie Times-News/AP
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A tie vote in the US Electoral College is unprecedented, but there are several plausible ways to come up one vote short of the 270 needed to elect a president, just by juggling the outcome in toss-up states.

Five scenarios proposed by the interactive website 270towin are anchored by a Romney win in Florida, with its 29 electoral votes. One tie-making combination adds wins for Romney in Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Wisconsin (10), and Iowa (6). A loss in Wisconsin, which appears to be trending more in favor of Obama, could be replaced by wins in New Hampshire (4) and Nevada (6) and still maintain a tie.

Another scenario assumes a Romney win in Florida but not the key battleground state of Ohio (18). But that combination produces a tie only if Romney can also capture North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), and Iowa (6).

The 1824 election came close to simulating a tie when war hero Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but failed to reach the threshold in the Electoral College to be elected president, so the election was thrown into the House and decided by a "corrupt bargain" that elected John Quincy Adams. The bitterness over this backroom deal lasted generations. Similarly, the 2000 contested election spawned criticism and even contempt for the political process. An Obama victory in the Electoral College but not in the popular vote – or a House vote that secures the presidency for Romney along partisan lines – could have a similar effect in Election 2012.

"If the presidential election were thrown to a seemingly dysfunctional Congress, it would necessarily be unpalatable to much of the country," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "I see all the scenarios and they sound very troublesome."

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