The Electoral College
The Electoral College
The Founding Fathers created the Electoral College to elect the President. Under this system, each state picks electors, those electors select the President. The number of Electors is the total of Senators plus Representatives. Since both large and small States have two Senators, this provides some extra political power to smaller States. Each State determines how to select Electors - most use a ‘winner take all rule’, where all the Electors are awarded to the candidate who wins the State popular vote, whether by a small or large margin.
Five times in American history, a candidate has lost the popular vote but won the election in the Electoral College. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral vote but did not win a majority of the Electoral College. The election went to the House of Representatives which awarded the Presidency to John Quincy Adams.
The election of 1876 was marred by accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression. It took almost four months to select a winner. Rutherford Hayes, the loser of the popular vote, was awarded by Presidency by a single electoral vote.
Twelve years later Benjamin Harrison won almost 60% of the electoral votes while losing the popular vote by less than 1%. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was solidly Democratic. The Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, won over 60% of the popular vote in the former Confederate States. Harrison won the popular vote in the rest of the country, enough for a comfortable victory in the Electoral College, but not quite enough to overcome Cleveland’s popular vote landslide in the South. At the time, the South had less than 30% of the total U.S. population. In this case, the Electoral College prevented a candidate from winning the Presidency through overwhelming majorities in one region of the country.
In 2000, George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote and narrowly won the Electoral College over Al Gore, after an extended recount in the State of Florida.
The recent election of Donald Trump has stimulated talk of eliminating the Electoral College. Trump lost the popular vote by about 2% but received 57% of the electoral votes. If the Electoral College is abolished, the winner of the nationwide popular vote will become President. The argument is simple: in a democracy, majority rules. Hence the candidate with the most votes should win. Also, since virtually all states award their electoral votes on a ‘winner takes all’ basis, proponents of eliminating the College argue that candidates are encouraged the focus the bulk of their efforts on the swing states instead of running a nationwide campaign.
Electoral College supporters argue that without it candidates would focus on large cities and states. They say that candidates might work to run up their margins in areas where they are already popular instead of reaching out to other voters. It also can encourage outreach to minority groups as they may comprise the deciding votes within individual states, even if they represent a small portion of the overall electorate.
There is another election illustrating the possible benefit of the Electoral College. In this election, the winning candidate won the smallest percentage of the popular vote in our history, about 40%, although he won over 59% of the electoral votes - Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The primary reason for Lincoln’s low popular vote total was the Southern States. Many of those states did not even list Lincoln on the Presidential ballot – he received zero votes in those States. The 1860 election featured four candidates as the Country fractured immediately before the Civil War. Nonetheless Lincoln won an absolute majority, over 50% of the votes, in enough States to win in the Electoral College. Even if the other three candidates combined their popular votes, Lincoln still would have won a majority of the Electoral votes.
In 1860, the Democrat party was unable to agree upon a candidate. Democrats from the Northern States backed Senator Stephen Douglas, a supporter of allowing States to accept or reject slavery on a ‘popular sovereignty’ basis. Democrats from the Southern States wanted a stronger pro-slavery platform and would not back Douglas. The party split with Northern Democrats nominating Stephen Douglas while Southern Democrats nominated then Vice President John Breckinridge. Imagine the Democrats had united on a single candidate. Douglas and Breckinridge combined for over 47% of the popular vote, a significant margin over Lincoln. Under this scenario, with a popular vote system in place, Lincoln would have lost the race in 1860 to the Democrats. We don’t know what would have happened without Lincoln, but we do know Lincoln preserved the Union and abolished slavery. And while this is hypothetical, it is not far fetched that the Democrats could have united behind a single candidate. And under a popular vote system, based on overwhelming support from one region of the country, that candidate would have been President instead of Lincoln.