Presidential Elections Not Decided by the Popular Vote & How Marin County Voted in those Elections

By Robert L. Harrison

In American history there have been five presidential elections where the candidate gaining the most popular votes did not win the office. The most recent was just four years ago when Hilary Clinton out-polled Donald Trump by 2.9 million votes yet Trump was victorious in the vote of the Electoral College. Other years when the popular vote was not decisive were 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

Tally sheet documenting the 1824 presidential election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Source: National Archives and Records Administration: Center for Legislative Archives

In 1824 the election was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson polled some 39,000 or 10% more popular votes and 15 more Electoral College votes than the second place finisher, John Quincy Adams. Because the race included four candidates, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay also won electoral votes, Jackson did not achieve the required majority support from the Electoral College.

The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that, should no candidate achieve a majority of Electoral College votes, each state in the House of Representatives shall cast one vote for their preferred contestant. Adams prevailed in the House by winning the majority of representatives from 13 of the 24 states. He became the only President in American history to be elected with fewer of both popular and electoral votes than his opponent. Jackson’s supporters were infuriated calling Adams a “corrupt bargain” and establishing a new political party to be known as the Democratic Party.

Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The crowd in front of the New York Times office on the night of the Tilden-Hayes election, 1876” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1903.

The presidential election in 1876 is still considered most controversial of those not decided by the popular vote. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden outpolled Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Historians generally agree that in the final count Tilden led Hayes by over 250,000 votes. This result remains as the only time in history when a presidential candidate won over 50% of the popular votes but lost the election.

In the 1876 presidential race, however, the Electoral College votes in four states were in doubt: Florida (4 votes); Louisiana (8 votes); South Carolina (7 votes); and Oregon (1 vote in dispute). In the three southern states violent Democratic paramilitary groups disrupted rallies of both black and white Republican groups and actively terrified black voters. The reported returns favored Tilden in each state but the vote count was tainted by accusations of intimidation and fraud. In South Carolina for example more than 100% of the eligible voters were reported as having cast a ballot. In Oregon, where Hayes clearly won, the Democratic governor disputed the legitimacy of one of the Republican electors as having once served as a postmaster and thus not eligible as an elector under Article II of the Constitution. The governor then substituted a Democratic elector to join the two legitimate Republicans.

Congress devised the Compromise of 1877 to include a 15-member Electoral Commission with the primary task of determining the correct assignment of the disputed electoral votes. The Commission decided on every disputed vote by 8 to 7 in favor of the Republican, Hayes. Ultimately the Democrats agreed to assign all 20 disputed votes to Hayes giving him a one vote margin in the Electoral College (185 to 184), the smallest electoral vote victory on record. In return the Republicans agreed to withdraw all federal troops from the South, thus ending the federal role in Reconstruction, the policy to protect the rights of African Americans in the South. With this step the South ultimately became a Democrat Party stronghold well into the 20th century.

Accepting his defeat, Tilden remained remarkably buoyant, “I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.” And in a comment sometime later, “I still trust the people.”

The Republican leaning Marin Journal expressed its view in a November 16, 1876 editorial: “We believe that the election of Tilden would be a great calamity….” Hayes won in both Marin County and California. The Marin vote was 651 (50.9%) for Hayes to 619 for Tilden. The statewide tally showed Hayes won California’s six electoral votes by 79,258 (50.9%) votes to Tilden’s 76,460.

Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison Scales, 1888
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

In 1888 Grover Cleveland the incumbent and a Democrat received 90,596 more votes than did the Republican winner, Benjamin Harrison, grandson of former President William Henry Harrison. Harrison won 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168. He won almost the entire northeast, the Midwest and all of the west coast states. Due to only lukewarm support from Tammany Hall, Cleveland was denied the electoral votes of even his home State of New York. In what appears to have been an essentially fair election, Cleveland was the clear choice of most voters yet Harrison prevailed, winning 58% of the electoral votes.

California’s eight electoral votes went to Harrison. Statewide the margin was Harrison 124,816 votes (49.7%) to Cleveland’s 117,729 votes. Marin County also supported the Republican with Harrison earning 936 votes (52.8%) against 802 for Cleveland.

IBM Votomatic, used in Marin from 1966 until 1999. Similar to the punch ballot shown below, a blank card was inserted into the clipboard, and the stylus was used to punch out pre-scored holes to record votes. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.
Official ballot for the 2000 Presidential election, November 7, 2000, from Palm Beach County, Florida. Source: Wikipedia.

Two of the five presidential elections where the popular vote winner was not elected were in the six most recent contests. In 2000 Democrat Al Gore won by more than 500,000 votes over Republican George W. Bush, a margin of about one-half of one percent (0.51%). The close election came down to the State of Florida where Bush achieved a narrow 537 vote victory out of almost six million cast. After several recounts in some Florida counties the United States Supreme Court ended the counting in a 5 to 4 decision. Bush was awarded Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes granting him the victory and the presidency by a total of 271 (50.5%) electoral votes to Gore’s 266 votes.

Gore’s popularity was quite evident in Marin County. He earned the support of nearly two-thirds of the county’s voters. The final vote count was 79,135 (64.2%) for Gore and 34,872 for Bush. California’s 54 electoral votes went to Gore with a statewide vote of 5,861,203 (53.5%) ballots for Gore and 4,567,429 votes for Bush.

Just four years ago America experienced the fifth of the five presidential elections where the winner of the popular vote was not elected. In 2016 Hilary Clinton outpolled Donald Trump by almost three million votes (65.9 to 63.0 million), a popular vote lead of 2.1%. Trump won the electoral vote count 304 (55.5%) to 227 for Clinton. Trump’s win was shaped by narrow margins in three traditionally Democratic states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Clinton was very popular in Marin County gaining over three-quarters (78.1%) of the county’s vote. The Marin count was 108,707 votes for Clinton versus 21,771 for Trump. Statewide Clinton also achieved a significant victory over Trump winning by over four million votes and gaining all of California’s 55 electoral votes. The state vote count was 8,753788 (61.7%) for Clinton and 4,483,810 for Trump.

Since the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 the inequity of the Electoral College has led to over 700 proposals to reform or eliminate the system. In 1969 a Constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with a plurality national vote system gained approval by the required two-thirds vote (339 to 70) in the House of Representatives. President Nixon endorsed the proposal. The Senate, however, could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass it on to the States for ratification. The 1969 effort to completely eliminate the Electoral College remains the most serious challenge to that body to date.

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