Popular Vote Vs. Electoral College — A Look at the History of Our System for Electing Presidents

The concept of the electoral college dates back to the very inception of the United States of America.  The founding fathers of this great nation were at odds with one another on how exactly the president should be elected.  The final system was a compromise between the concepts of election by the United States Congress and election by voters.  Every time election years roll around, the debate continues on whether the electoral college is the right way to go about it.

All conspiracy theories aside, there are plenty of people that are not happy with the way the United States chooses its president.

The way the system currently works, people vote in the elections in their home counties or parishes.  These are tallied and then at the state level, one candidate wins or loses.  The U.S. Electoral College actually elects the president based on the results of the state elections; the number of electors a state has is determined by their standing in Congress.  All states have two senators, so this translates to two electors.  The amount of U.S. Representatives is based on the population of the state.  These two numbers added together are the amount of electors a state has in the Electoral College.  This is where the controversy begins.  Many people feel that the system gives too much weight to states with large populations on selecting the president.  Of course, the counter-argument is that it should be so because the states with higher populations should have more say.  It gets even hairier when a large state with a lot of pull has a very close election result.  This means that all the state’s electors vote for one candidate that won even though a fair sampling of the state chose the other option.  Many people feel that even at the state level, the electoral college system makes some people’s votes simply not count for all intents and purposes.

So, who are the electors?  It’s an interesting question.  Technically, being an elector is a huge power.  Each state has its own guidelines for how its electors are chosen.  They are generally not allowed to be in Congress, but they are often very highly visible persons in the political arena.  These electors do have complete authority to vote for whoever they choose when it comes time to elect the president.  Because most electors are chosen by the people, it is almost a given that they will cast their vote for the candidate that won the election in their state.  It’s another one of those political “i want to keep my job” things.  That’s the way it goes for 48 states.  Whoever won the election at the state level generally gets all the electors’ votes.  In Nebraska and Maine, the winner at state level gets two automatically, and then all other electors vote according to results in the districts.  Why this is such a minority, we don’t know, because it seems a heck of a lot more fair, doesn’t it?  One of the most likely reasons that most states stick with the “winner-takes-all” strategy is to make sure their state has the most say in the overall election that it can.  By splitting votes up, states can lose some of their political oomph.

If all that isn’t complicated enough, there is something called “faithless electors.”  These are so rare that most people don’t even know it exists or is possible.  These are electors that use their authority to vote for whoever they wish regardless of how the vote turned out in their state.  Some states have tried to enact laws against this, but since it happens so rarely and has never been challenged on its constitutionality, it’s hard to say if any of these laws would really stick.  After all, the Constitution of the United States grants these electors the power to vote one way or another, and one would think that if it ever came up, the Supreme Court would have to rule against the state laws that can prosecute or otherwise punish faithless electors.

Here’s a look at the way the electors will break down over the next several years.

An example of why the system was designed this way is the 1872 election.  Horace Greeley was set to become president but passed away before the Electoral College met.  63 electors changed their votes to make sure they didn’t award the presidency to a dead man.  This is probably the best example of the positives of the electoral college system.  In modern times, it is much more rare and when it does happen, it’s not enough to matter.  As a matter of fact, all electors were faithful in elections from 1896 until 1948, when there was one defector.  After that, there was never more than one faithless elector, the most recent being in 2000 and 2004 when one each defected.  Barbara Lett-Simmons refused to vote for Al Gore in the 2000 election in an act of protest against the electoral college and her feeling that the District of Columbia did not have enough representation in the election format.  In 2004, there was one “faithless elector.”  They get the quotes because the vote was actually cast in error and was not intentional.

So, as you can see, the electors almost always vote for the who they are pledged to by the people’s choice.  Now, let’s look at one of the primary objections to the electoral college system:  the popular vote.

Popular vote is simple enough.  It is the sum total of all votes for one candidate in an election with no respect to states or Congressional districts.  This is getting down to the nuts and bolts; the popular vote shows just how many Americans voted for one guy and how many for another.  Those that are at odds with the electoral college feel that this should be the gold standard for elections.  Why have a complicated system when we could simply look at who voted and elect the president based on who won the most votes from citizens?  This really became a hot-button issue back in 2000, the last time the popular vote did not agree with the electoral college.  George W. Bush actually trailed Al Gore by 543,816 votes in the popular vote, but the distribution of Bush’s votes allowed him to still claim the majority of electors and claim the presidency.   So, more people pound for pound voted for Gore, but the electoral college system caused the majority’s opinion to not be heard.  Of course, we all remember all of the claims of voter fraud and the court battles that left America wondering who its president would be fore weeks after the election.  This could be seen as another example of why the electoral college was created.  It eliminates the possibility of a really close vote leaving Americans disenfranchised.  Even when votes go down to a few hundred thousand, the electoral college makes sure that there is a majority.  Of course, population and voting rights figure into the equation.  Back in the 1800s, the popular vote often featured differences of less than a hal-million votes, but back in those days blacks and women could not participate, so the overall amount of votes was much less.  So, the closeness of the 2000 election was a highly unusual event.

Now, the final question we have.  How often does the popular vote get discounted?  For all the discussion and debate that went on surrounding the 2000 election, it is a very rare event when the electoral college does not echo the popular vote.  In fact, it has only happened four times in American history.  The first was in 1824 when John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson despite losing the popular vote by 38,211 votes.  That sounds really close, but back in those days, the entire popular vote only consisted of 113,142 anyway, so it is not nearly as close of a margin as the 2000 election when you compare the 50,000,000+ votes in that election.  In 1876, it happened again, fifty-two years later.  Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel J. Tilden despite losing the popular vote by 252,666.  With only 4,000,000+ votes in the pot, that was a pretty big margin for losing the popular vote and no doubt caused tons of controversy.  A shorter gap just to 1888 was when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland (who would win the next election by a very narrow margin as well) but lost the popular vote by 94,520 votes.  From there, we arrive at 2000 when George W. Bush beat out Al Gore.

As you can see, the popular vote rarely goes against what the electoral college is bound to do anyway.  It just so happens that one of the most hotly contested ones is in our time.  Bush went on to win the 2004 election handily with a 3,000,000+ vote lead on John Kerry.  Current American president won in 2008 with a 9,549,105 popular vote lead on John McCain.  Don’t look for Obama to win reelection by such a wide margin, as the 2012 edition is likely to be much closer.

So, the final verdict is in.  The U.S. Electoral College gets it right the overwhelming majority of the time.  The real debate is the organization of the college and how different states are represented.  This may be the biggest matter of debate in 2012.  The election looks to work out where just a few “swing” states may be the defining factors in who our next president is.  Common Sense Conspiracy looks forward to examining more about how the electoral system in America works as we lead up to the big day in November.

One thought on “Popular Vote Vs. Electoral College — A Look at the History of Our System for Electing Presidents”

  1. What part of the election process do political parties play…in that, would they have the same role whether we had election by electoral voting, or by popular vote? Would the process be better or worse without them and how does their power benefit or detract from the positive intended purpose?

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