Sponsored by

Note: This story is more than 3 years old.

FactCheck: Popular vote and the Electoral College

Two of the most popular stories on the FactCheck website right now aren’t about presidential nominees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They were written more than eight years ago in response to readers’ questions:

  • How many times was a president elected who did not win the popular vote? The answer is four, with the most recent occurring in 2000 when Al Gore received over 500,000 popular votes more than George W. Bush. But Bush won the electoral vote, 271 to 266.

Full Answer

The 2000 election was the most recent when the candidate who received the greatest number of electoral votes, and thus won the presidency, didn’t win the popular vote. But this scenario has played out in our nation’s history before.

In 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected president despite not winning either the popular vote or the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson was the winner in both categories. Jackson received 38,000 more popular votes than Adams, and beat him in the electoral vote 99 to 84. Despite his victories, Jackson didn’t reach the majority 131 votes needed in the Electoral College to be declared president. In fact, neither candidate did. The decision went to the House of Representatives, which voted Adams into the White House.

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election (by a margin of one electoral vote), but he lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots to Samuel J. Tilden.

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison received 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, winning the presidency. But Harrison lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes.

In 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the general election and became the 43rd president, but he didn’t win the popular vote either. Al Gore holds that distinction, garnering about 540,000 more votes than Bush. However, Bush won the electoral vote, 271 to 266.

– D’Angelo Gore

  • Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College? The short answer is the framers of the Constitution didn’t trust direct democracy, and provided an extra layer to ensure, as James Madison put it, that “factions” of citizens with a common interest don’t harm the nation as a whole. However, the Electoral College has become a mere formality.

Full answer

When U.S. citizens go to the polls to “elect” a president, they are in fact voting for a particular slate of electors. In every state but Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the most votes (that is, a plurality) in the state receives all of the state’s electoral votes. The number of electors in each state is the sum of its U.S. senators and its U.S. representatives. (The District of Columbia has three electoral votes, which is the number of senators and representatives it would have if it were permitted representation in Congress.) The electors meet in their respective states 41 days after the popular election. There, they cast a ballot for president and a second for vice president. A candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes to be elected president.

The reason that the Constitution calls for this extra layer, rather than just providing for the direct election of the president, is that most of the nation’s founders were actually rather afraid of democracy. James Madison worried about what he called “factions,” which he defined as groups of citizens who have a common interest in some proposal that would either violate the rights of other citizens or would harm the nation as a whole. Madison’s fear – which Alexis de Tocqueville later dubbed “the tyranny of the majority” – was that a faction could grow to encompass more than 50 percent of the population, at which point it could “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Madison has a solution for tyranny of the majority: “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”

As Alexander Hamilton writes in “The Federalist Papers,” the Constitution is designed to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The point of the Electoral College is to preserve “the sense of the people,” while at the same time ensuring that a president is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

In modern practice, the Electoral College is mostly a formality. Most electors are loyal members of the party that has selected them, and in 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., electors are bound by laws or party pledges to vote in accord with the popular vote. Although an elector could, in principle, change his or her vote (and a few actually have over the years), doing so is rare.

As the 2000 election reminded us, the Electoral College does make it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and still not become president. But that is less a product of the Electoral College and more a product of the way states apportion electors. In every state but Maine and Nebraska, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. So if a candidate wins a state by even a narrow margin, he or she wins all of the state’s electoral votes. The winner-take-all system is not federally mandated; states are free to allocate their electoral votes as they wish.

The Electoral College was not the only Constitutional limitation on direct democracy, though we have discarded most of those limitations. Senators were initially to be appointed by state legislatures, and states were permitted to ban women from voting entirely. Slaves got an even worse deal, as a slave officially was counted as just three-fifths of a person. The 14th Amendment abolished the three-fifths rule and granted (male) former slaves the right to vote. The 17th Amendment made senators subject to direct election, and the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

Joe Miller

- 30 -
have your say   

Comments

There are no comments on this report. Sorry, comments are closed.

Sorry, we missed your input...

You must be logged in or register to comment