No other part of our election system is as important as the Electoral College. No other part of our election system has come under fire through the years since its establishment than the Electoral College. The furor over its existence ebbs and flows through cycles. But in recent presidential elections that were decided by the voting results of the Electoral College which totals were different than the results of the American popular vote have put discussions about ending the Electoral College front and center again.
It IS controversial. And that controversy in large part is the result of American voters not understanding its structure, its purpose, and its controversy. Those Americans that are confused pretty much all subscribe to the thinking “Why even have it at all, especially when in 2000 the Bush 43 election and then in the 2016 Trump election its results (and ultimately the presidency and vice presidency) were decided by other than popular vote totals of ALL Americans?”
So in all the confusion and misunderstanding, we thought it best to delve into ALL the details of the Electoral College so everyone can participate in educated discourse about its value, its history, and its impact on the country going forward.
Let’s take a look, after which in our Summary we will share OUR conclusions.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College members for each state are voted on by the state’s residents on voting day. In some states, the electors’ names are printed on the ballots directly under the presidential candidates’ names or grouped by party somewhere else on the ballot. In other states, the names of electoral college nominees are not even listed on the ballot.
When you vote for a presidential and vice-presidential candidate on the ballot, you are really voting for the electors of the political party (or unaffiliated candidate) by which they were nominated. Take the North Carolina General Statute § 163-209, for example: “A vote for the candidates for President and Vice-President named on the ballot is a vote for the electors.”
This is the case for 48 states. It’s known as the winner-take-all system, where all electors go with the candidate who wins the popular vote regardless of how close the vote is. So if the Democratic candidate narrowly wins the popular vote in Texas, for instance, 38 Democratic electors (38 being the total number of electoral votes in the state) will represent Texas as a voting block.
The other system, known as the congressional district method, is observed in Maine and Nebraska. In these states, the vote is split between the electoral vote which goes to the winner of the statewide popular vote and the congressional district vote. The state is divided into congressional districts, each with one electoral vote. The winner of the popular vote in each district is awarded an electoral vote. Potentially, this could result in a divided electoral vote but so far it has not happened in either state.
Most of the time, electors cast their votes for the candidate who has received the most votes in the state he or she represents, or for the candidate affiliated with his or her political party. However, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the people’s decision. When electors cast their vote without following the popular vote or their party vote, they are known as faithless electors.
In response to faithless electors’ actions, at least two dozen states have created laws to enforce an elector’s pledge to his or her party vote or the popular vote. Some states even assess a misdemeanor charge and a fine. For example, the state of North Carolina fines faithless electors $10,000. However, a number of scholars believe such state-level laws would not survive constitutional challenge; of the 158 faithless electors, none have ever been punished.
In most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. Some electors abstain from voting, while others vote differently than they pledged to vote. Despite 11th hour changes within the Electoral College, only five candidates in U.S. history have won an election by losing the popular vote and winning (or deadlocking) the electoral vote:
- 1824: John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams, received some 38,000 fewer votes than Andrew Jackson, but neither candidate won a majority of the Electoral College. Adams was awarded the presidency when the election was thrown to the House of Representatives.
- 1876: Nearly unanimous support from small states gave Rutherford B. Hayes a one-vote margin in the Electoral College, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 264,000 votes. Hayes carried five out of the six smallest states (excluding Delaware). These five states plus Colorado gave Hayes 22 electoral votes with only 109,000 popular votes. At the time, Colorado had just been admitted to the Union and decided to appoint electors instead of holding elections. So, Hayes won Colorado’s three electoral votes with zero popular votes. It was the only time in U.S. history that small state support has decided an election.
- 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral vote by 65. In this instance, some say the Electoral College worked the way it is designed to work by preventing a candidate from winning an election based on support from one region of the country. The South overwhelmingly supported Cleveland, and he won by more than 425,000 votes in six southern states. However, in the rest of the country, he lost by more than 300,000 votes [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].
- In 2000, Al Gore received 50,992,335 votes nationwide and George W. Bush received 50,455,156 votes. The race was so close in Florida that ineffectively punched ballots (known as “hanging chads”) required a manual recount because the voter intent couldn’t be deciphered by machine. Eventually, Bush was awarded the state of Florida by the U.S. Supreme Court and had a total of 271 electoral votes, which beat Gore’s 266 electoral votes.
- 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million over Donald Trump, the largest margin by a presidential loser in U.S. history. But Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232. He won all the Great Lakes states that traditionally vote Democrat, plus four big battleground states (including Florida and Michigan) by less than 1 percentage point. Clinton had bigger leads in fewer, but more populous states, like California.
Today, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 votes to win the election. In cases where no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the decision is thrown to the House of Representatives by virtue of the 12th Amendment. The House then selects the president by majority vote with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes.