Suppose that on Nov. 3, and for weeks thereafter, no one knows whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden has won the presidential election.

To be more specific, suppose that as of Nov. 4, Trump is unquestionably ahead in the key states — say, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But suppose, too, that as those states count absentee and mail-in ballots, it becomes clear that Biden has won.

Predictably, Trump alleges fraud — and tweets that his supporters, and the country as a whole, should not allow “THE GREATEST FRAUD IN HISTORY.”

Everything will ultimately turn on the vote of the Electoral College, scheduled for Dec. 14, and on what happens on Jan. 6, when Congress meets to declare the winner. But if we have a fierce dispute in late November and early December, how on earth do we get to a final decision in early January?

The Electoral Count Act of 1887 was designed to answer that question. In my first column on this issue, I described what the ECA requires in the event of contested elections, and explained what the law is clear about. By giving the major authority to the states, and by outlining, step by step, what is supposed to happen, it sharply limits room for political maneuvering in Washington.

Unfortunately, the act also leaves some important questions unresolved. A leading political scientist of the late 19th century even described it as “very confused, almost unintelligible.”

That’s too harsh. But exactly how would the law handle an objection, by Trump and his campaign that the election was “rigged” and that mail-in voting resulted in rampant fraud?

The first question, and the most fundamental, is whether the act is constitutional. Many people think that it isn’t, and the Supreme Court has never ruled one way or another. (In Bush v. Gore, the principal question was whether Florida —the state on whose electoral votes the election would turn —had adopted an unconstitutional method for a manual recount. The court ruled that it did, on the ground that Florida had no standards for deciding whether to count ballots, and thus violated the due process and equal protection clauses. The Electoral Count Act did not play a significant role in the case. Note well: The specific problem in Bush v. Gore could arise during recounts in 2020.)

If the critics are right in saying that it isn’t constitutional, one reason is that a current Congress lacks the authority to bind a future Congress.

Indeed, some members of Congress who voted for the act in 1887 acknowledged that point. They said that it should not be seen as binding but as imposing a “moral obligation,” meant to eliminate chaos and to reduce the role of rank partisanship.

Fair enough. But let’s assume (and, if you’re so disposed, pray) that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agree to follow the rules laid out in the act.

Even if they do, those rules leave serious gaps.

Suppose that the governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have made a final determination that Biden won the popular vote. As a result, the states’ electors plan to vote for him.

But what if Trump’s supporters in Congress argue that it’s all a fraud — and that the president actually won the three states? The text of the Electoral Count Act is frustratingly silent on what would happen in that case. The Senate debates about the issue at the time seemed to suggest that Congress could ignore a final determination by the states, if fraud was indeed involved. If so, Republicans could try to find a way to swing the election to Trump. And if that is right, then we could easily imagine real chaos in Washington.

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