How is it possible that a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote yet still be elected President? It’s because the President and Vice-President are really elected by the Electoral College and not by the overall popular vote (more on this later). There have been five times since 1824 (the first year the popular vote was recorded) when this has happened. And the winners were:
John Quincy Adams (1824) who only won 31.6% of the popular vote compared to Andrew Jackson’s 42.3%.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) who won 47.9% to Samuel Tilden’s 50.9%. This was considered the most controversial election in American history – yes, even without hanging chads.
Benjamin Harrison (1888) who won 47.8% to the incumbent, Grover Cleveland’s, 48.6%
George W. Bush (2000) who won 47.9% and Al Gore captured 48.4%. Now we can talk about hanging chads.
Donald Trump (2016) who won 46.1% of the vote while Hillary Clinton won 48.2%.
So, how could this happen? One person, one vote, right? Not really. Back in the day when the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention got together to figure out how to elect a president, they realized this was a really, really hard thing to do. They debated for months, with some arguing that Congress should pick the president and others insisted on a democratic popular vote. They finally compromised by coming up with the Electoral College. Instead of the nationwide popular vote determining the outcome, the president of the United States would be determined by votes cast by electors of this Electoral College. And if no candidate receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, the election is determined by the House of Representatives. Believe it or not, the constitution doesn’t even require States to hold a popular vote. Anyway, back to our Founding Fathers. This really wasn’t a “Eureka!” moment for them. They were tired and it was a compromise and it would finally put the issue to rest so they all could go home and have a beer. In addition, they weren’t convinced that common folk would have enough information to make an informed decision. (Remember, they also believed this about us women... ‘nuff said!)
Then there was the issue of slavery which, of course, existed in the 1700’s when all of this was going on. If electors were based on population, what about all those southern States who had slaves? Those States wanted some cred for their slaves, even though they were slaves and all, plus those slaves could not vote. According to History.com: “The result was the controversial ‘three-fifths compromise,’ in which enslaved Black people would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors and calculating federal taxes. The compromise ensured that Southern states would ratify the Constitution and gave Virginia, home to more than 200,000 slaves, a quarter (12) of the total electoral votes required to win the presidency (46).” Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
History.com goes on to say: “Not only was the creation of the Electoral College in part a political workaround for the persistence of slavery in the United States, but almost none of the Founding Fathers’ assumptions about the electoral system proved true. For starters, there were no political parties in 1787. The drafters of the Constitution assumed that electors would vote according to their individual discretion, not the dictates of a state or national party. Today, most electors are bound to vote for their party’s candidate.
And even more important, the Constitution says nothing about how the states should allot their electoral votes. The assumption was that each elector’s vote would be counted individually. But over time, all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, (see below) passed laws to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote count. Any semblance of elector independence has been fully wiped out.”
Who makes up the Electoral College then? The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, and an absolute majority of electoral votes, 270 or more, is required to win the election. In 48 states and Washington D.C., the winner of the plurality of the statewide vote receives all of that state's electors; in Maine and Nebraska, two electors are assigned in this manner and the remaining electors are allocated based on the plurality of votes in each congressional district. That seems pretty fair, doesn’t it? *Editorial question – if I move to Maine, can I still be in Book Club?
How are the number of State electors determined? Each state gets one elector per Senator (2) and one for each Representative (varies depending on the State). In New York, we have 29 electoral votes.
Critics argue that the Electoral College is less democratic than a national direct popular vote and is subject to manipulation. They also argue that the system is contrary to a democracy that strives for a standard of "one person, one vote" because it can stand in the way of presidential choice by the voters with a national majority. If you’ve wondered why candidates seem to focus their attention on “swing States”, it’s because the majority vote in that State will ensure winning all the elector’s votes for that State (except for Maine and Nebraska). Swing States are usually close in the popular vote so getting voters to choose you instead of your opponent would mean you get all those electoral votes for that State.
Of course, it remains to be seen how this election will turn out. I, for one, will be watching those numbers running on the TV that continually tally the potential electoral votes based on the popular vote for each State. With so many absentee ballots being cast this year, however, it could be at least a few days before we learn the results. I suspect that there will be a lot of eyes on the screen (as well as some nail-biting) anyway!