Winning the Electoral College but NOT the Popular Vote

By | November 7, 2012

When I was younger I played chess, quite competitively. The basic rule of thumb was after a match–win or lose–there was a handshake and the expected exchange of “Good game.” So whether you were voting for Obama, Romney, Johnson, or had a write-in… “Good game.” That being said, there was a moment last night when it looked as if President Obama would win the electoral college but not the popular vote. Instantly, everyone started to think back to the 2000 Presidential Election, and had flashbacks to hanging chads and the Florida recount.

The news report that I was watching started to talk about how the system was flawed, that the electoral college was a mistake, that a new and improved system was needed. As it stands now, it seems that Obama won the popular vote by roughly 2.5 million votes; Obama 50.3%, Romney, 48.1%. But what if it was the other way? In four previous presidential elections, a person won the electoral college vote but not the popular vote. Therefore, the least popular was declared victorious and named President of the United States. :- / I know…right?

1x1.trans Winning the Electoral College but NOT the Popular Vote

Electoral College 2000

Starting with the most recent, and moving backwards, there is the 2000 election. In 2000, Governor George Bush and Vice President Al Gore squared off in one of the closest elections in United States history. Once the final count was tallied, Gore won the popular vote by 543,895. This number can be represented as 0.54% of the voting population voting for Gore and Bush combined. Winning the popular vote, however, was not enough. George Bush won the electoral college 271-266. At this time in history, as is still true today, the required number to win the electoral college is 270. Bush was declared the winner,even though more voters voted for Gore.

1x1.trans Winning the Electoral College but NOT the Popular Vote

Electoral College 1888

In 1888, President Grover Cleveland and United States Senator Benjamin Harrison battled a long race, with the outcome of the election coming down to Cleveland’s home state of New York. The overall popular vote was only a difference of 90,596 votes. This number can be represented as 0.83% of the voting population voting for Cleveland and Harrison combined. What is crazier is that the state of New York, came down to less than 15,000 votes, roughly 1.1% of a difference. If Cleveland could have swayed 1.1% of voting New York citizens, he would have changed the electoral college vote from 233-168, to 204-197; thus, putting him over the 201 electoral college votes necessary to win presidency. Unfortunately he would have to settle for only winning the popular vote, stepping down as president, and re-running as president in 1892. President Cleveland would go on to win in 1892, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Gosh, these elections are all so close… So what happens when we look at one that wasn’t so close?

1x1.trans Winning the Electoral College but NOT the Popular Vote

Electoral College 1876

In 1876, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and Governor Samuel J. Tilden competed in on of the most disputed elections in our nation’s history. I won’t get into all the specifics, but let’s cover the same numbers that we have covered in the two earlier examples. Governor Tilden received 247,448 more popular votes than did Governor Hayes. This number can be represented as 2.97% of the voting population voting for Hayes and Tilden combined. Now we start to see an issue. Almost 3% difference in the popular vote, and Hayes was declared the victor because he was 185-184 in the electoral college. This election stands as the only time in America’s history where there has been an absolute majority of the popular vote–more than 50%–go to one person, yet the votes did not get the majority winner elected president.

I saved the best for last. Imagine having the most electoral college votes AND the most popular votes, then not winning the election. You are in a race with three other competitors, and you win every contest. Unfortunately there are some “rules” that decided that you didn’t win by enough, so you lose. Check out the race statistics from 1824 below.

1x1.trans Winning the Electoral College but NOT the Popular Vote

Electoral College 1824

You can see that Andrew Jackson clearly won the popular and electoral vote; however, Jackson did not have the majority (majority is more than 50%) of the electoral vote. This led to the tie-breaker event laid out in the Twelfth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It would take me hundreds and hundreds of words to describe the events that took place at this point, so watch this video.

Wow! So this is what happens when someone running for President of the United States, wins the electoral college but not the popular vote; or in the case of Jackson, win both. If you want to see how someone could only receive only 22% of the popular vote and still become your president…you must watch this video! (The good stuff starts at 4:20, but I recommend watching it all.) Watch this video, and then you tell me that we don’t need a new system.


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