Two things happen every four years in the United States: The voters cast their ballot in the national election, and experts on constitutional law and the Electoral College begin making appearances on television and radio to explain the somewhat confounding process by which the next occupant of the White House is selected. Here are six facts about presidential elections to help you understand the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote.
Fact One: How the Founding Fathers really felt about the voters
The Founding Fathers were far from unanimous in the trust they placed in the American people to choose the person who should lead the country. In fact, most of them were of the opinion that the voters were not capable of selecting someone to hold what they perceived to be the most important leadership position in the newly-created federal government. As a result, they looked for a way to avoid letting the winner of the popular vote in an election lead the nation.
Fact Two: The Founding Fathers did not have much faith in Congress, either
A counter proposal to letting the people elect their president was to give that power to the Congress. The thought that members of Congress were better qualified than the general population to select the president made the rounds at the constitutional convention in 1787, but it did not draw enough support to make its way into the Constitution.
Fact Three: Power to the states and the creation of the Electoral College
The solution to the dilemma of how to choose a president is contained in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution with the creation of the electoral vote. States are allowed to determine the process to be used to select electors who would cast their vote for the president and the vice president. There is one elector for each of the two senators and one for each member of the House of Representatives elected from each state.
There are currently 538 electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia with 270 electoral votes required to elect a president. The outcome of the popular vote in each state on Election Day in November determines how the electors vote when they meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
Electors are chosen by political parties in each state at some point before the general election. The popular vote in each state in the general election determines for which presidential candidate the electors will cast their vote.
Contrary to popular belief, the Electoral College is not a place where the electors come together to vote. It is, instead, a term used to describe the electoral process as contained in Article II and the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.
Fact Four: Winner takes all applies in all states except two
The presidential candidate getting the most votes in the general or popular election in a particular state wins all of the electoral votes assigned to that state. This is true in 48 states and the District of Columbia. The legislatures in Maine and Nebraska opted to give two electors to the presidential candidate who wins the state by the most votes in the general election. A candidate can gain an additional electoral vote for each of the congressional districts he or she wins by popular vote within the state.
Fact Five: The system has a backup plan
It is possible that the popular vote could result in no presidential contender receiving the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. If that happens, the three candidates with the most votes in the Electoral College are voted on by the House of Representatives. Each state delegation has only one vote.
If the Electoral College fails to elect a vice president, the two candidates with the most electoral votes are presented to the Senate. Each senator casts one vote with the winner being the candidate receiving a majority. The Senate has only been called upon on one occasion to elect the vice president. This occurred in 1836 when Martin Van Buren's vice presidential running mate had to await a vote of the Senate in order to be declared the winner.
Fact Six: 2016 is not the first time a president was elected without winning the popular vote
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 is not the first time that a candidate won in the Electoral College without receiving a majority of the popular votes. The 2000 election of George W. Bush was subject to much debate over the fact that his opponent, Al Gore, won the popular vote. What many political commentators pointed out in both instances was the fact that the last candidate to win in both the Electoral College and in the popular voting was George H.W. Bush back in 1988.
The 1992 and 1996 presidential elections won by Bill Clinton were not won by a majority of the popular vote. A third candidate in both elections got enough votes in the general election to prevent Clinton from winning a majority of the popular vote, but he was able to obtain the 270 votes in the Electoral College to win the office.
The system of electing a president by electoral vote versus popular vote resulted in other controversial presidential victories during the 1800s:
- 1888: Grover Cleveland won the popular vote due, in part, to his popularity in the southern states, but it did not get him the electoral votes he needed to win the office. That honor went to Benjamin Harrison who won in the Electoral College.
- 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, but a dispute over some of the votes in the Electoral College resulted in neither candidate winning a majority of the electoral votes. Congressional intervention resulted in the contested electoral votes being awarded to Hayes who went on to serve as president.
- 1824: Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but he failed to get enough votes in the Electoral College. He lost the election when the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams over him.
The debate over the fairness of the electoral vote versus the popular vote to choose the president has been going on after each election for more than two centuries. There will probably be more proposals in the future to scrap the current system, but a system that has survived since 1787 will undoubtedly weather the storm of future debates.