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Five-and-five teaser for America

President Barack Obama speaks at his last campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. (AFP)

Washington, Nov. 6: Americans woke up on election day to a nightmare that has haunted them throughout this year’s long and expensive presidential poll campaign. They were confronted with a tie between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the first location in the US to vote, Dixville Notch in New Hampshire.

Forty-three minutes after midnight last night this village of just 10 voters proclaimed its verdict: five of its residents eligible for franchise chose Obama and the remaining five picked Romney as the next President. The result was a tie.

All national opinion polls, except one, in the run-up to today’s election have found the two presidential contenders tied in their support within the margin of error. These trends have got pundits into knots for weeks, predicting a variety of unusual scenarios.

One such nightmare result predicted Romney, picked by the Republican-majority House of Representatives, to occupy the White House in January with Vice-President Joe Biden being re-elected by a Democratic-controlled Senate.

The US Constitution provides for such a solution if the outcome in Dixville Notch today is repeated at the national level with both Obama and Romney securing 269 votes in the electoral college, which chooses the President. The winner must get 270 votes.

For slightly more than half a century, it has been the tradition in the US that voters in Dixville Notch cast their ballots as soon as the clock ushers in the first Tuesday of November which is designated as election day in America.

Dixville Notch, a tiny mountainous village obscurely located 32km from the border with Canada, has always squeezed every bit of publicity that it gets from this unique role. But the tie between Obama and Romney there has led to a widespread belief that its 10 voters decided among themselves to equally split their votes between a Democrat and a Republican.

Because the result was emblematic of the national voting scene this year, the village remained on TV screens and news headlines here well into noon on election day. The town clerk, the local equivalent of a returning officer in India, said Dixville Notch has only two voters registered as Democrats, three are registered Republicans and the remaining five are independents.

Hart’s Location, another village in New Hampshire which similarly started voting at midnight on election day since 1996, overwhelmingly chose Obama. Of its 34 voters, 23 picked Obama while nine chose Romney. A third party candidate got two votes.

Even if it turns out later tonight that the result from Dixville Notch was not a precursor to the national election outcome, it may make little difference to the way the US, which is politically and ideologically split down the middle, is governed under the next President.

Notwithstanding who occupies the White House in January, the Democrats are most likely to retain their majority in the US Senate while the Republicans may continue to hold sway over the House of Representatives. As a result, gridlock, which repeatedly held up the federal budget during half of Obama’s presidency and created a permanent shadow of a government shutdown, is expected to continue.

This does not augur well for a country in crisis and in need of decisive economic initiatives.

If Congress cannot quickly agree on how to steer the economy forward, sweeping spending cuts and tax rises to the tune of $600 billion are scheduled to take effect on January 1 next year.

This will be the first challenge facing the next President, whoever he may be. The lack of an agreement between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House on fiscal measures could push the US economy that is limping back from the 2008 crisis into deep recession.

Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve have already warned against that prospect. In the absence of a decisive win for either party in the fight for the White House as well as the two chambers of Congress, those warnings are likely to go unheeded amidst post-poll political polarisation.

The Democrats have 53 senators and the Republicans 47 in the outgoing chamber and the latter had a good chance of changing the composition of the Senate tonight in their favour because of a wave of anti-incumbency against senators. But with several ultra-conservative “Tea Party” candidates in the fray, independent voters and moderate Republicans are likely to help Democrats defend their 23 seats that are up for re-election.

There are 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats in the current House of Representatives with 435 members. The Republicans are likely to retain their majority tonight, if not improve on it. In several states under the party’s control, electoral boundaries have been redrawn ethnically and racially to favour the Republicans.

Along with electing a President and a new Congress, Americans are also voting today for a slew of “propositions” that are effectively new laws put forward by the people instead of through a legislative process. Unprecedented since the 1920s, there are 12 referenda this year to veto laws already passed by states or to introduce new ones over the heads of their legislatures.

In Maine, for instance, an unprecedented citizen initiative to legalise same-sex marriage is being voted on while in Maryland and Washington, voters are to decide on a ballot measure that will veto homosexual marriages that are already approved under law by these states.