How does the Electoral College work? (or How Presidents are Appointed)

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 is one of four elections when the candidate who led the popular vote did not win the office:

  • 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 aU.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.

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