The Electoral College through history

The stunning outcome of this month's Presidential election is a rare example of a race decided in the Electoral College. Though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 650,000, Donald Trump won where it mattered most, by picking up over 270 ...

Grover Cleveland won three consecutive popular votes, but in the second election lost the Electoral College. (1904 illustration by Carlo de Fornaro, Everybody's Magazine)


The stunning outcome of this month's Presidential election is a rare example of a race decided in the Electoral College. Though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 650,000, Donald Trump won where it mattered most, by picking up over 270 electoral votes.

It is the fifth time that the Electoral College influenced a Presidential race. Two of those cases were decided by Congress, while one - the notorious 2000 Gore-Bush battle - went to the Supreme Court.

The 2016 campaign was bitter and dirty, but the races of the 1820s were even worse. The 1824 campaign featured four candidates: Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, as well as Speaker of the House Henry Clay and ex-Georgia congressman and Cabinet member William Crawford. Jackson polled the most popular votes, edging Adams 42-32 percent, while Crawford and Clay each earned 13 percent.

None of the four, however, had a majority of electoral votes. In keeping with the 12th Amendment, the matter was sent to the U.S. House, which had the task of choosing from the top three Electoral College finishers. The fourth-place finisher, Clay, threw his support to Adams and urged the Kentucky delegation to vote as such.


Clay's move helped Adams secure the victory. In turn, Adams named Clay as Secretary of State. Enraged, Jackson backers screamed that a "corrupt bargain" had been made and a rematch between Adams and Jackson in 1828 was even more bitter than 1824.

Fifty-two years later, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes prevailed in the 1876 election when returns from four states were contested. The Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden was leading in the popular vote, but without the four key states, was left with a 184-166 lead in the Electoral College, one shy of a majority.

An electoral commission of 15, consisting of five senators, five representatives and five Supreme Court justices, was created by Congress to decide the matter. In a strict vote along party lines in February 1877, the commission voted 8-7 to award the four disputed states to Hayes, giving him the election by a 185-184 count.

Some Democrats in the South were outraged at the decision. To pacify them, Hayes offered the Compromise of 1877, which withdrew federal troops from the South and sought to improve Southern education and transportation. Hayes also appointed a Southern Democrat to Postmaster General, then a Cabinet post. The compromise ended the Reconstruction era in the South, which had existed since the end of the Civil War.

The Electoral College issue cropped up again in 1888, though with less controversy. In that race, Republican incumbent Grover Cleveland edged Democratic challenger Benjamin Harrison by over 100,000 votes, but lost in the Electoral College, 233-168. The scenario denied Cleveland's re-election, though he would triumph in a rematch with Harrison in 1892.

As a result, Cleveland is one of only two presidents, joining Franklin D. Roosevelt, to win the popular vote in three or more consecutive Presidential elections.

After 112 years, the Electoral College took center stage again in 2000, when the Gore-Bush race broke down into a battle of hand recounts and "hanging chads." Gore collected over 51 million popular votes, then the second-highest total ever and over 500,000 ahead of Bush, but fell short by only a few hundred tallies in Florida, the most hotly contested state.

After weeks of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court decided on Dec. 12 by a 5-4 vote that the recounts should end. Bush won 271 Electoral College votes, one more than he needed.


Electors were not bound by either the Constitution or federal law to vote for the candidate of their party, though defections are rare. In several cases, an elector has cast their vote for someone other than a party nominee, with no change to the outcome.

Examples include the 1988 race, when a West Virginia Democratic elector chose Lloyd Bentsen for President and Michael Dukakis for vice president, flipping the popular ticket. Ronald Reagan received a single vote from a Washington state elector in 1976, while in 2000, a Gore elector from the District of Columbia submitted a blank ballot to protest the district's lack of representation in Congress.

In addition, Sen. Harry Byrd (D-Va.) received 15 electoral votes in the 1960 Electoral College, which gave him the majority in both Alabama and Mississippi. Again, however, the outcome was not influenced, as John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in both popular and electoral votes.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at (217) 710-8392 or .

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