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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Majority of Voters Don’t Always Win

By Tom Morrow

For those of you thinking our Presidential election is as simple as “majority wins,” you haven’t gone to class to learn about the Electoral College. Four times in the history of the United States, a President has been elected without getting a majority of the popular vote, thanks to the Electoral College.

The Electoral College, is not a simple procedure and down through the years critics have attempted to do away with the system. The Electoral College was set up by the founders as a way of ensuring that “qualified” candidates would run and win. It was thought there were too many uneducated or uninformed citizens who wouldn’t or couldn’t choose well, or at least the way the politicians thought they should. The Electoral system is designed so it could over-ride the will of the people – and it has.

Here’s how it works: It’s General Election day. You make a selection at your polling place and with your “I voted” sticker, step into the November air, satisfied you’ve made your wishes known. But what if your vote, the one you thought you cast for a Presidential candidate, was actually used to elect someone whose name you don’t even know — who would cast a Presidential vote on your behalf?

This may sound bizarre, but this is exactly what takes place during a U.S. Presidential election. By voting for a Republican or Democratic Presidential candidate, for example, you are really voting for your party’s member of the Electoral College, who is expected — but not required — to vote along party lines to reflect your wishes several weeks after the General Election.

California, the most populated state, has 55 Electoral Votes. In some states, the electors’ names are printed on the ballots directly under the presidential candidates’ names or grouped by party somewhere else on the ballot. In other states, the names of electoral college nominees are not even listed on the ballot.

In the first few elections, Presidents would be chosen by only the Electoral College. Then in 1804, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was written and clarified the situation – somewhat.
Below are four examples of Presidents being elected by using the Electoral College system. According to the 12th Constitutional Amendment, if there is a stalemate, the House of Representatives votes for a winner. But not always, as you’ll see below:

No. 1 – In 1800, Thomas Jefferson tied with Aaron Burr (73 Electoral votes each). It was left to the House of Representatives to elect the new President. Out of hatred for Burr, Alexander Hamilton persuaded enough House members to elect Jefferson — by one vote. (Note: in those early days, the second-place candidate became vice president, which Burr assumed – reluctantly) Burr got even with Hamilton on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, N.J., in the infamous duel.

No. 2 – John Quincy Adams was the son of our second President and a founding father, John Adams. In 1824, he was in a five-man Presidential race. Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay were his opponents. Jackson won both the pluralities and the Electoral votes, but NOT a majority. It was thrown into the House and Adams emerged the winner, even though he had garnered less than one-third the popular vote.

No. 3 – Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the election of 1888. Harrison received 90,000 votes fewer than Cleveland, but he carried the Electoral College 233 to 168, thus winning the White House.

No. 4 – George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by defeating Al Gore, who had beaten Bush by 543,895 popular votes. Bush won 29 states, thus defeating Gore with the Electoral College 271 to 266.
These examples may sound bizarre, but it’s exactly what took place during four U.S. Presidential elections. When you vote for a Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidate on the ballot, you are really voting for the electors of the political party by which they were nominated.

After more than 230 years, the populace of the U.S. now may be ready and smart enough to elect a President on our own without the help of the Electoral College. But, then again, maybe not.
Remember, your party’s Electoral member isn’t required to vote the way you’ve voted – but, in most cases they do.

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