|2016's Electoral College result|
While I am writing this it has been just over a week since the controversial election of Donald Trump. A big part of this controversy centers around the fact that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump, but thanks to the Electoral College Trump will now be president. As of writing this is the fifth time the Electoral College has allowed someone who lost the popular vote to become president. This blog post is neither a call for the abolition of the Electoral College, nor a post supporting the College. Instead it is to show the peculiar scenarios in the past when the College has given people the presidency when they lost the popular vote, (and two other peculiarities which I thought would be fun to mention). First off though we have to know what the Electoral College actually is, and why the United States has it.
The What and Why
The Electoral College is somewhat unique to the United States. In most other countries when you vote in an election you vote for which party you want in power, and the party with the most votes, (and for the most part seats in the parliament, diet, Bundestag etc,), gets to chose the next leader of the country; normally this is the Head of the Party. In contrast, in the United States you directly vote for who you want to be president, (and vice-president), who so happens to represent a party whether it be Democrat, Republican, Libertarian etc. However, that is not entirely accurate. In the United States when you cast a vote you are not saying 'I want x to be president and y to be vice-president', but rather saying 'I want my elector in the Electoral College to vote for x to be president and y to be vice-president'. The Electoral College has 538 electors representing the 435 representatives, 100 senators, and 3 electors for the District of Columbia. These electors are spread across every state based on population and each state has a minimum of three electors. Currently California has 55 electors, Alaska has 3, Michigan has 16, and so on and so forth. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska in each state all the electors have to vote the same way. Say for example in Ohio 60% of the population votes for X and 40% votes for Y all 18 of Ohio's electors have to vote for X. Meanwhile, in Maine if 75% vote for X and 25% vote for Y then 3 of Maine's electors will vote for X, and one will vote for Y. To become president a candidate requires a minimum of 270 electoral college votes. You may be wondering, why was this implemented? For that we have to go back to the eighteenth-century.
Despite winning independence in 1783 the United States did not create the constitution we have today until 1787. It is here where the Electoral College was born. From the outset the plan was for the new republic to be a democracy. However, there was an issue with this. In days prior to the Industrial Revolution it could take days to communicate across an area the size of Great Britain nevermind the eastern coast of the United States. As a result it was difficult to count votes across a wide area using direct voting. Hence, the Electoral College was a quicker solution; people vote for electors who could easily find out who they should vote for. It was also done to limit both autocracy and democracy. Some Founding Fathers believed that direct democracy would lead to anarchy, (and the French Revolution a few years later would support their fears), so figures, like Alexander Hamilton, believed that voting directly for the president could lead to mob rule. On the other hand, there was a general fear that denying popular vote would lead the new republic to become the same autocracy which they had fought to free themselves from. Why fight against one autocracy on the other side of the Atlantic to install one at your doorstep? Hence, the Electoral College seemed a fitting compromise. To top it all off each state had a minimum of three electors so large states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, (today's West Virginia and Virginia), could not dominate the smaller ones like Rhode Island. In later years this would become an issue as votes in some less populated states started to be worth more than states with larger populations. Like all other institutes making up the United States government the Electoral College would evolve, (to an extent), over time. Now to discuss the main topic of this post. I shall skip over the 2016 election due to the fact it is on the news everywhere currently so we can focus on the last time the Electoral College allowed someone who lost the popular vote to win the presidency: the 2000 election.
The 2000 Election
|Bush and Gore|
The most recent time that the Electoral College, (prior to 2016 that is), allowed someone to lose the popular vote but win the College vote was in 2000. For the Democrat party Vice-President Al Gore ran, and for the Republicans George W. Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush, ran. Voter apathy meant that there was a low turnout, (quite similar to the most recent election), The race for the White House was somewhat close; Gore had a narrow lead in both the popular vote, and the College vote. The election rested on one state: Florida. Gore had 266 seats in the College so if he won Florida he would have got the popular vote, (by a small margin), and the College vote, (a large margin). Florida was the last state to count all the votes and Bush was in the lead by the time 85% of Florida's votes had been counted. Thanks to this many news broadcasters declared that Bush had won the presidency. However, Bush's lead dwindled rapidly when the rest of the votes started to come in, so much so that the news switched and declared that Gore won Florida. Then it was declared 'too close to call', and then Bush had won Florida. After heated debates the Supreme Court of Florida ordered a recount. As the recount was underway Bush took the matter to the federal Supreme Court asking for a stay of the recount as he argued it was unconstitutional. In Bush v. Gore the Supreme Court, (in a 5-4 decision), decided to stay the recount. As a result Florida's electors in the College gave Bush their vote, and the presidency by a very narrow margin, (he got 271 seats). Gore had narrowly won the popular vote but lost the College vote by a somewhat large margin. However, it is difficult to say if the recount would have swung the election: it could have either given Bush the popular vote or Gore the presidency.
Although there is some debate if JFK lost the popular vote in 1960 it is very ambiguous, and it is quite possible that he did win the popular vote so for that reason we shall move to the third time when the College swung the election. In was all the way back in the nineteenth century...
The Election of 1888
|Cleveland v. Harrison|
The third time the Electoral College allowed someone who lost the popular vote to become president was in the 1888 election. In this election incumbent Democrat President Grover Cleveland ran for re-election against Republican Benjamin Harrison. On a side note Harrison was the grandson of ninth president William Henry Harrison who, when elected, was the oldest president aged 68 until Reagan, (and now Trump). He also is the president to have had the shortest time in office serving thirty-two days before dying of pneumonia which he caught during his inaugural address. Back to 1888. Grover Cleveland was unfortunate enough to lose several swing states, including his home state of New York, which meant that Cleveland narrowly lost the popular vote but lost the College vote by a large margin. Also, when I mention popular vote I mean votes cast by people eligible to vote: in 1888 most states only allowed solely white men to vote, and even then some states only propertied white men could vote. In 1892 Cleveland had his own back on Harrison: he won both popular, and College votes becoming the only person so far to be president for two non-consecutive terms.
The second time which the College let someone to be president despite losing the popular vote was in 1876.
The Election of 1876
|The Compromise of 1877|
The election of 1876 came during a time of fracture, attempted reconciliation, and change in the United States. Following the end of the Civil War in 1865 the Republicans in the North wished to reconcile with the South, reconstruct the South's economy so it no longer required slavery, and somewhat improve the conditions for former slaves. This was called Reconstruction. It was a noble idea which for the most part failed miserably. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized, murdered, and mutilated African-Americans and white Southerners who helped them (as well as Northerners); Black Codes in various states stripped the legal rights of African-Americans; opposition from Lincoln's successor, Andrew Jackson, prevented the dismantling of the plantation system; and opposition from Democrats and some Republicans caused many setbacks. Redemption governments sprang up in the South to oppose the new order, and the acts passed to help former slaves, (such as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments), would only help northern African-Americans or civil rights campaigners in the future. Former Union general Ulysses E. Grant since coming to office in 1868 had vainly tried to enforce Reconstruction, (although he did successfully cause the Ku Klux Klan to go into decline), but it was in vain. The South disliked the Republicans, (how times have changed), and they were losing support in the North thanks to Grant failing to deal with corruption. The Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes was not in a good position, and his Democrat opponent Samuel Tilden managed to win the popular vote by over 200,000. However, Florida (again), South Carolina and Louisiana had both parties claim they won, and through a peculiar incident there was one seat available in Oregon. The Republicans made a deal with the Democrats in what has since been called 'The Compromise of 1877': the Democrats would let Hayes be president if the North removes their troops from the South, (ending Reconstruction), policies to be passed to industrialize the South, a Democrat to be in Hayes's cabinet, and transcontinental railroad to be built in the South. The Democrats let Hayes be president; legislation was passed removing all rights from African-Americans in the South (later called Jim Crow laws); and Reconstruction came to an end.
The first time the College let someone who lost the popular vote become president is peculiar. The person lost both the popular and College votes but still became president. This was the 1824 election.
The Election of 1824
1824 was very different to the United States of 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. For one, most of the USA at this time was under Mexican rule. Also, party politics had basically ceased to exist. The Founding Fathers believed that parties were signs of rot in a democracy, and following the 1816 election politics had gone back to how the Founding Fathers envisioned: people, not parties, running for election. I should also point out that political parties in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not like the parties of today; instead they were more loose affiliations with loosely defined ideas. In 1824 John Quincy Adams, son of former president John Adams, the Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and war hero Andrew Jackson all ran for the presidency. The contest, however, was mainly between Adams and Jackson. When the election results came in Jackson won around 40,000 more votes than Adams, (it may not seem much but in 1824 the number of people who voted was around half the population of Washington D.C.), and he had the most seats in the College. He had more popular and College votes than Adams, Clay, and Crawford. However, he only had 99 seats when 131 was needed to win. As the person with the highest amount in the College did not have enough votes to become president the 12th amendment stipulated that the House of Representatives had to who would become president out of the top three candidates. The House had to decide between Adams, Jackson, and Crawford. Clay, who was left out, loathed Jackson saying 'I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy', (Jackson was famous for his victory over the British following the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Although the battle actually took place after the war ended). Clay was vocal in his support for Adams who won the support from the House and John Quincy Adams became president. As a reward Clay was made Secretary of State causing Jackson supporters to accuse them of a 'corrupt bargain'. The next election saw Jackson roundly trounce Adams and after he led a government which caused the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Native Americans.
These were the times when the Electoral College inadvertently let the loser of the popular vote become president. However, there are two other peculiar elections, both involving the College, which I wish to discuss, and both were crazier than the 2016 election. The first take us back to 1800...
The Election of 1800
|Thomas Jefferson and John Adams|
In this election Vice-President, former Secretary of State, former French ambassador, and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson ran against incumbent president and George Washington's vice-president John Adams. This was the second time these two had ran against one another, 1796 being the first, and prior to the 1800 election whoever lost the election became vice-president. 1796 itself was a heated election: France threatened to invade, parties had emerged, and it was the first contested election (no one had ran against Washington). There were the Federalists, who Adams represented, who wanted a strong federal government, and another confusingly named party who Jefferson represented. Contemporaries, (and historians), have called them Anti-Federalists, Democrats, Republicans, and Democratic-Republicans, (they were neither the antecedents of the Democrats nor the Republicans). To avoid confusion we shall refer to them as Anti-Federalists, and they wanted increased state autonomy. In 1796 Adams won but in 1800 Jefferson fought hard. His campaign accused Adams of having 'hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman' so Adams responded saying that Jefferson was 'a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father'. Jefferson was painted as an atheist under the spell of Satan and France, while Adams was accused of being a warmonger, an autocrat, and of even being dead. When elections came around Jefferson chose Aaron Burr of New York to run with him and be his vice-president. This would in theory get both Northern and Southern votes. Jefferson easily beat Adams, but the first crisis of the Electoral College emerged from this. In 1800 electors had two votes so instead of voting for one person to become president they had to vote for two. The Anti-Federalists had planned for their electors to vote for Jefferson, and one or two to abstain from voting for Burr. What really happened was every Anti-Federalist elector voted for both Jefferson and Burr. Jefferson and Burr had equal seats in the College.
Initially if this was to happen the plan was for Burr to concede defeat and become vice-president, as planned. However, Burr decided that he would actually like to become president and refused to concede. What happened then was for the House of Representatives to decide who should be president. The new Anti-Federalist filled House would not convene until January/February of 1801 so Federalists, who hated both Jefferson and Burr, had to decide on the president. The House had to pick the candidate which they hated the least. Although he was not a Representative (despite what the musical says) Alexander Hamilton was an influential figure in deciding the president and although he disliked Jefferson he loathed Burr. As a result the House made Jefferson president, Burr vice-president, and passed the 12th amendment in 1804 to stop this from happening again. Needless to say Jefferson's and Burr's time together was not very warm. In 1804 Jefferson was re-elected easily and Burr shot Hamilton in an illegal duel.
There is one last election which I wish to talk about. It was an election which fractured a nation but brought to power Trump's, Obama's, and Reagan's favorite president.
The Election of 1860
1860 the USA was in crisis over slavery. North and South were at each other's throats over the issue. The Democrats could not decide over a candidate and had split on North/South lines. Northern Democrats chose Stephen Douglas while Southern Democrats chose John Breckinridge. There was a newly formed party called the Constitutional Union party, represented by John Bell, whose stance on the major issue of the day, (slavery), was to consult the Constitution. Bearing in mind the Constitution mentions slavery twice: the first time never says 'slaves' but instead 'other Persons' and the other time is the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. Finally there was another newly formed party called the Republicans who had a certain figure representing them: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was a political misnomer in 1860. He was little known outside his state of Illinois, he seemed to come from nowhere, and his views on slavery were not known. In fact historians are still debating his views on slavery in 1860. The Republican party in 1860 was made up of abolitionist, and those who merely wished to limit slavery's spread. Although historians debate his views on slavery at this moment in time the Deep South, where slavery was the backbone of society and the economy, viewed Lincoln as either an abolitionist, or as a tool of abolitionists. As a result in the 1860 election the Republican candidate never appeared on the ballot. When the results came in the Southern Democrats received virtually every vote in the Deep South, the Northern Democrats received Missouri, the Constitutional Unionists got the Upper South votes, and Lincoln got the votes from the Northern and two Pacific states. However, although Lincoln received only 40% of the vote he won both the popular and College vote. This infuriated the Deep South who believed that a possible abolitionist was now in prime position to abolish slavery. Starting with South Carolina the Southern slave states seceded one by one to form the Confederate States of America. Thus began the American Civil War, and by the end of 1865 four million slaves became free.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-Give me Liberty!: An American History by Eric Foner
-The Penguin History of the United States by Hugh Brogan
-The Civil War and Reconstruction by David Herbert Donald, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt
-America: A Narrative History by George Tindall and David Shi