It may surprise you to know that Russia has a more direct presidential election process than the United States. In the United States, a system called the Electoral College periodically allows a candidate who receives fewer popular votes to win an election. In fact, there have been several presidential candidates who won the popular vote, but lost the election because they received fewer electoral votes. In Russia, where no such system exists, the candidate who receives a majority of popular votes wins the election.
Every four years, on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, millions of U.S. citizens go to local voting booths to elect, among other officials, the next president and vice president of their country. Their votes will be recorded and counted, and winners will be declared. But the results of the popular vote are not guaranteed to stand because the Electoral College has not cast its vote.
The Electoral College is a controversial mechanism of presidential elections that was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise for the presidential election process. At the time, some politicians believed a purely popular election was too reckless, while others objected to giving Congress the power to select the president. The compromise was to set up an Electoral College system that allowed voters to vote for electors, who would then cast their votes for candidates, a system described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution.
Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators plus the number of its U.S. representatives. Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C., as allowed by the 23rd Amendment. On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December, the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to officially cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, who on January 6th opens and reads the votes in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office at noon on January 20th.
Most of the time, electors cast their votes for the candidate who has received the most votes in that particular state. Some states have laws that require electors to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote, while other electors are bound by pledges to a specific political party. However, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the people's decision, and there is no federal law or Constitutional provision against it.
Losing the Popular Vote and Winning
In most presidential elections, a candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. There have been four presidents who have won an election with fewer popular votes than their opponent but more electoral votes.
Here are the four elections when the candidate who led the popular vote did not win the office:
- 1824: John Quincy Adams received more than 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 been 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.
- 2000: Al Gore had over half a million votes more than George W. Bush, with 50,992,335 votes to Bush's 50,455,156. But after recount controversy in Florida and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Bush was awarded the state by 537 popular votes. Like most states, Florida has a "winner takes all" rule. This means that the candidate who wins the state by popular vote also gets all of the state's electoral votes. Bush became president with 271 electoral votes.
Today, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 votes to win the election, so George W. Bush won the 2000 election by one electoral vote. 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.
Here are the two elections that were decided by the House of Representatives:
- 1801: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democrat-Republicans, received the same number of electoral votes, despite the fact that Burr was running as a vice presidential candidate, not for the presidency. Following 36 successive votes in the House, Jefferson was finally elected president.
- 1825: As mentioned above, Andrew Jackson received a majority of the popular vote over John Quincy Adams, but neither man received a 131-vote majority of electoral votes needed at the time to claim the presidency. Adams won the House vote on the first ballot.
Proponents of the Electoral College say that the system served its purpose in the elections listed above, despite the fact that the candidate who won the popular vote didn't always win the election. The Electoral College is a block, or weighed, voting system that is designed to give more power to the states with more votes, but allows for small states to swing an election, as happened in 1876. Under this system, each state is assigned a specific number of votes that is proportional to its population, so that each state's power is representative of its population. So, while winning the popular vote may not ensure a candidate's victory, a candidate must gain popular support of a particular state to win the votes in that state. The goal of any candidate is to put together the right combination of states that will give him or her 270 electoral votes.