When You Lose But Still Win

A short history of the United States Electoral College.

John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, the five men who became United States Presidents without winning the popular vote. — Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every four years, Americans flock to the polls in November to cast their vote for their favorite presidential candidate. However, when they’re filling in the little bubble next to their candidate’s name, they aren’t actually voting for that candidate directly. This, of course, is thanks to a little system known as the Electoral College.

The United States was founded on July 4, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, the Declaration was all that the young nation had. Establishing a cohesive system of government would take another decade to get around to figuring out.

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was ratified, the Articles of Confederation were created on November 15, 1777. However, the Articles of Confederation would not be ratified until March 1, 1781. The Articles of Confederation simply served as a short-term national government solution for the young nation after the split from England.

In 1787, there were 13 states in the Union, and the population of the young nation was nearing 4 million. There was no Supreme Court, nor had the concept of the presidency been established. A system of Congress did exist in the United States. However, it was quite dysfunctional. Something needed to be done and done quickly to put the young nation on the right track.

Delegates began meeting in 1787 to create a framework for the national government for the country. After drafting the new United States Constitution in 1787, the document was ratified on June 21, 1788, and became effective on March 4, 1789. With the birth of the Constitution of the United States also came the birth of the Electoral College system. Interestingly enough, the Electoral College system was a point of contention in 1787, just as it continues to be today.

Why Was the Electoral College Even Created?

If you want to thank someone for the creation of the Electoral College, look no further than the Founding Father James Wilson. This Founding Father hailed from Scotland. Wilson was born in Fife, Scotland, in 1742. Before leaving for America in 1766 to teach at the College of Philadelphia, Wilson had gained an education at the Scottish Universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. However, he did not earn a degree from any of these institutions.

A portrait of James Wilson, a Founding Father, the creator of the American Electoral College system, and Supreme Court Justice. — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After arriving in America, he taught at the College of Philadelphia and then set up his own legal practice in Reading, Pennsylvania. After 20 years in America, Wilson would play a monumental role in the drafting of the United States Constitution and the creation of the Electoral College. While James Wilson was the first to propose implementing an Electoral College system, it was not his first choice.

Wilson had originally proposed the creation of the executive branch to be filled by a “single magistrate.” However, many of the delegates were not keen on the idea of a “single magistrate,” as they had just broken away from England. The delegates were worried that a monarchy would simply emerge in America too. Wilson assured delegates that a monarchy would not form in America if this individual was directly voted by the people in a democratic vote. However, delegates found problems with this concept too. How would citizens be able to knowledgeably choose a presidential candidate with communication across the nation being so primitive?

Luckily, Wilson had another suggestion. If the delegates didn’t like his idea of a direct vote for the executive leader of the country, how about creating a system where a select few electors would get to choose the president of the country? Now, this was a system that most of the delegates could get behind. They just needed to fine-tune it a little bit.

The Racist History of the Electoral College

Before the Constitution and its contents, including the Electoral College outlined in Article II, Section 1, could become the law of the land, 9 of the 13 states had to ratify it. Luckily, there was already a draw to the Electoral College for the smaller populated states. The delegates from the smaller populated states had originally rejected the idea of Wilson’s direct voting plan, as they saw it as placing all of the power in the hands of the bigger populated states.

An animated gif highlighting the slaveholding history of the United States of America. — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the southern delegates were not keen on the idea of a popular vote system either, as the North would have a higher population compared to the South. Remember, only property-owning or tax-paying white males counted as people during this time. However, the majority of those living in the South at the time were black slaves. The slave population was estimated to be around just under one million in 1787. The creators needed an incentive for the southern delegates. As a way to get the southern delegates onboard with the Electoral College system, Wilson, along with Roger Sherman, proposed the Three-fifths Compromise.

The Three-fifths Compromise provided southern states with more seats in Congress by counting three out of every five slaves as a person. Seats in the House of Representatives are given based on population, so getting to count slaves as people in this circumstance was a massive win for the southern states. It was also enough of a win to encourage the southern delegates to sign the Constitution into law. Ultimately, the Electoral College system was created as a means of appeasing southern slaveholders. The implementation of the Electoral College also provided slave-owners with disproportionate political power in the United States.

Failings of the Electoral College

The delegates knew that the Electoral College had its faults, but they needed to ratify the Constitution to have a sound and functioning governmental framework for the nation. Ratification came with compromise, and the discussion of slavery was completely swept under the rug in order to keep the Northern and Southern states unified through the early years of becoming a nation. Of course, these issues could not be ignored for long, but that’s another discussion.

The current Electoral College system, used during the presidential elections of 2012, 2016, and 2020, based on the 2010 census data. — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately the Founding Fathers knew the Electoral College was faulty even during its inception in 1787. It’s hard to know what any of them would have to say about it today, except maybe James Wilson, who had wanted a popular vote system to begin with.

Since the Electoral College’s inception in 1787, it has allowed five men to become president without winning the popular vote. Seeing this as a victory or a failure is, of course, a matter of opinion. As long as the Electoral College exists, there will be debates that rage on either side of the argument. However, what isn’t an opinion, is that the Electoral College has allowed multiple presidencies to emerge where the candidate did not have the majority support of the nation. The first instance occurred in 1824, just a few decades after the Electoral College was created.

The Election of 1824

In the presidential election of 1824, John Quincy Adams went up against Andrew Jackson, William H.Crawford, and Henry Clay. The two front runners were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson had garnered 151,271 votes, and Adams had garnered 113,122 votes. Jackson held over a 10% lead in the popular vote compared to Adams. However, none of the candidates had won a majority of the electoral votes.

The Electoral College Map of 1824 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The election was then handed over to the U.S. House of Representatives to hold a contingent election. On February 9, 1825, John Quincy Adams was elected as the 6th United States President, despite not garnering a majority of the popular vote. Adams would serve only one term, and Jackson would have to wait until the election of 1828 to become victorious.

The Election of 1876

The presidential election of 1876 was one of the most controversial and contentious in U.S. history. In this election, Rutherford B. Hayes faced off against Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden garnered 4,288,546 votes, securing 50.9% of the popular vote. Hayes only garnered 4,034,311 votes, securing just 47.9% of the popular vote.

The Electoral College Map of 1876 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tilden beat Hayes in the popular vote by over 200,000 votes. However, Hayes would secure 185 electoral votes, and Tilden would only obtain 184. Thus, Rutherford B. Hayes was named the victor of the 1876 election and became the 19th President of the United States. Hayes would be a one-term president. Throughout his term, he was often referred to as “Rutherfraud” as a result of circumstances surrounding his victory.

The Election of 1888

In the presidential election of 1888, Grover Cleveland, the sitting U.S. President, went up against Benjamin Harrison. President Cleveland garnered 5,534,488 votes, securing 48.6% of the popular vote. Harrison garnered 5,443,892 votes, securing 47.8% of the popular vote. However, Harrison won 233 electoral votes, and President Cleveland only secured 168. Thus, Benjamin Harrison was named the victor and became the 23rd President of the United States.

The Electoral College Map of 1888 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

President Harrison would only serve one term. Interestingly enough, Cleveland would run for president again in the 1892 presidential election. He would end up beating both President Harrison and the Populist candidate, James B. Weaver. Along with winning the popular vote in the 1892 presidential election, Cleveland would secure 277 electoral votes compared to Harrison’s 145 and Weaver’s 22. Cleveland’s victory in the 1892 election, made him both the 22nd and 24th United States Presidents. President Cleveland has been the only individual to serve two non-consecutive terms in U.S. History.

The Election of 2000

After the election of 1888, over a century would pass before another hiccup with the Electoral College would emerge. In the presidential election of 2000, Republican candidate George W. Bush faced off against Democratic candidate Al Gore. Al Gore garnered 50,999,897 votes, securing 48.4% of the popular vote. Bush only garnered 50,456,002 votes and secured 47.9% of the popular vote.

The Electoral College Map of 2000 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While Gore earned over 500,000 more votes than Bush, Bush won the Electoral College race with 271 electoral votes compared to Gore’s 266. Through winning the Electoral College, Bush became the 43rd President of the United States. Bush would run for a second term in the 2004 presidential election. In the 2004 election, President Bush would face off against John Kerry and would handily win both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

The Election of 2016

In the presidential election of 2016, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton faced off against Republican candidate Donald Trump. Clinton garnered 65,853,514 votes, securing 48.2% of popular vote. Trump garnered 62,984,828 votes, securing 46.1% of the popular vote.

The Electoral College Map of 2016 — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Clinton earned over 3 million more votes than Trump. However, Trump handily won the Electoral College with 304 electoral votes compared to Clinton’s 227. Thus, Donald Trump became the 45th U.S. President through the Electoral College system.

In most U.S. elections, the candidate who has won the Electoral College has also won the popular vote. However, in the last twenty years, two candidates have become United States presidents without having the support of the majority. With two recent elections being decided by the Electoral College rather than the American people, the Electoral College and its flaws have garnered more attention.

While the debate over whether the Electoral College is good, bad, or otherwise will likely continue as long as the system is utilized, one element remains abundantly clear. In the current system of American democracy, when you lose, you can still win.

Writer | Storyteller | Poet | Historian | Entrepreneur | M.A. History • Modern American and Modern European Studies | Writing about History, Culture, and more.

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