Popular Vote Thwarted in Close US Elections
If Tuesday’s presidential elections are neck-and-neck as predicted, what really counts are the 538 votes of the archaic Electoral College. In some cases, like the 2000 elections, this can put the loser in the White House.
Despite all the shenanigans that occurred in Florida before, during and after Election Day 2000, Al Gore received 543,895 more votes than George W. Bush. But look who is in the White House! This was not the first time a candidate won the presidency with fewer votes than his rival.
On three occasions in US election history a Republican candidate lost the popular vote but ended up in the White House. In 1876, Samuel Tilden (D) defeated Rutherford Hayes by a 51.6% - 48.4% margin but never made it to Pennsylvania Avenue because the all-powerful Electoral College gave the vote to Hayes 185-184.
Only eight years later the same thing happened. Incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland won the popular vote 49.3% to 48.4% over challenger Benjamin Harrison. Nonetheless the Electoral College gave the election to Harrison 233-160.
Then, a century later, George W. Bush stormed the White House with 271 Electoral College votes to 266 of Al Gore, despite the fact that Bill Clinton’s vice president won the popular vote by a 48.38% to 47.87% margin.
These results come from a country that would be the first to cry foul play and consider launching an invasion if the losing candidate was proclaimed the winner in any of George Bush’s “dark corners” of the planet.
Besides being able to decide elections regardless of the popular vote, the winner take all allocation system of the Electoral College also distorts the real outcome of the vote.
For example in 1980, Ronald Reagan won 50.7 percent of the popular vote to incumbent Jimmy Carter’s 41.0 (an independent, John Anderson, obtained 6.6%). After the Electoral College votes were tallied, Reagan had 90.9% to Carter’s 9.1%.
In 1996, Bill Clinton won 49.24 of the popular vote to 40.71 of his challenger Bob Dole. In the electoral vote tally Clinton garnered 70.4% to Dole’s 29.6%.
While these figures poorly reflect the actual popular vote, the cases of most notoriety showing the un-democratic nature of the system were the election results from 1876, 1888 and 2000.
How it works
Most US citizens believe that when they cast their ballot, they are voting for the candidate of their choice. In fact, they are selecting a number of electors allotted their state on the Electoral College.
Every state has a number of electors equal to its congresspersons plus two senators. In addition, there are three electors for the District of Columbia. In the last presidential elections there were 538 electors, the same as this time around.
Except in Maine and Nebraska where proportional representation is allowed, all the electoral votes theoretically go to the candidate who leads the popular vote in a given state, independent of whether they win by one or one million votes. This “winner takes all” system can produce seemingly uneven results and clearly gives more value to an individual vote in sparsely populated states. For example, Wyoming has one electoral vote for every 165,000 residents while in California it’s one for ever 616,000.
Another troubling issue is that while Electoral College electors usually cast their votes for the candidate who received the most votes, there have been times when “faithless electors” have bolted and voted contrary to the people's decision, which was entirely legal. To date this has occurred in lopsided races and thus received little notice.
However, in a very close election one elector of the Electoral College could tip the balance in favor of a candidate. The danger of this occurring is one of several murky issues hovering over the 2004 elections.
Meanwhile, with E-Day approaching George W. Bush has already received a little registered boost from demographics and the Electoral College.
With population shifts recorded in the 2000 census the electoral votes per state changed. For example, Michigan now has 17 instead of 18, Pennsylvania 21 instead of 23, while Florida now has 27 instead of 25 and Arizona’s allotment increased from 8 to 10. In the 2000 elections, the former two went for Al Gore while the latter couple went to Bush. When taking into account all the changes the same 271-266 vote that gave Bush his victory would now be 278-260.
With by far the largest population, California receives 55 Electoral College votes and these appear headed for Kerry. The state with the second highest population is now Bush’s home state, Texas, with 34 electors predicted to vote Republican and now surpassing New York with 31, where Kerry is likely to score a big victory.
Several states that were close in the 2000 race continue to be the focus of the 2004 campaign. These include Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes), Ohio (17), Michigan (17), Florida (27), Minnesota (10) Wisconsin (10) Iowa (7), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), West Virginia (5), New Hampshire (4).
Election eve polls show the presidency a toss up and both candidates’ legal teams are already preparing for challenges to be filed over who is and isn’t allowed to vote and any irregular behavior in the vote tallying. Civic groups will also be on the watch for fraud in this all too familiar scenario that has the world on edge.