History of the Controversy Surrounding the Electoral College

Will Unger ’19

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, there’s been a lot of buzz around the Electoral College. Though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump received more electoral votes, and became America’s 45th president.

To understand why this can occur, and why the Electoral College has always been a subject of debate, you must first understand how it works.

In presidential elections, there is the popular vote (how citizens actually vote), and the electoral vote (performed by the Electoral College). At the most basic level the Electoral College is a process that votes to elect the president. 538 electors, 425 for the members of the House of Representatives, 100 for the members of the Senate, and three representing the District of Columbia, are chosen by state legislatures and appear on the ballot come election time.

When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are actually voting for your electors, who will then vote on your behalf. Though this may sound very disenfranchising, know that 99 percent of the time, electors vote along party lines, and that in 91 percent of elections (53/58), the Electoral College has chosen the same winner as the popular vote.

While some people may not have known about the system until the last election, there have been similar controversies throughout American history. In total, there have been five times where something similar has occurred. The first was almost 200 years ago, when John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was elected by the House of Representatives after both the popular vote and Electoral College failed to produce a definitive result. Most recently, until 2016 that is, was in 2000, when George W. Bush was elected by the Electoral College over Al Gore.

The split decision of the 2016 election caused a lot of mixed feelings about the Electoral College, with some even calling to get rid of it. This sentiment is nothing new though; Gallup polls dating back to the 1940s reported that 53 percent of Americans supported the idea of discontinuing the Electoral College. The same source reported that though over 700 amendments to change or eliminate the system have been proposed, none have ever been enacted.

In short, the Electoral College is definitely no stranger to controversy. The United States was a very different place when the Founding Fathers established the system, and could not possibly predict all the different ways elections have been changed since then. The events of the 2016 election were not the first of their kind, nor will they be the last.