Presidents Elected Without Winning the Popular Vote

President Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech

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Five U.S. presidents have taken office without winning the popular vote. In other words, they did not receive a plurality regarding the popular vote. They were elected, instead, by the Electoral College—or in the case of John Quincy Adams, by the House of Representatives after a tie in the electoral votes. They were:

Popular vs. Electoral Votes

Presidential elections in the United States are not popular vote contests. The writers of the Constitution configured the process so that only the members of the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote. The Senators were to be selected by state legislatures, and the president would be selected by the Electoral College. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, making the election of senators to occur through popular vote. However, presidential elections still operate under the electoral system.

The Electoral College is made up of representatives who are generally selected by the political parties at their state conventions. Most states except Nebraska and Maine follow a "winner-take-all" principle of electoral votes, meaning that whichever party's candidate wins a state's popular vote for the presidency will win all of that state's electoral votes. The minimum electoral votes a state can have is three, the sum of a state's senators plus representatives: California has the most, with 55. The Twenty-Third Amendment gave the District of Columbia three electoral votes; it has neither senators nor representatives in Congress.

Since states vary in population and many popular votes for different candidates can be quite close within an individual state, it makes sense that a candidate might win the popular vote across the entire United States but not win in the Electoral College. As a specific example, let's say the Electoral College is only made up of two states: Texas and Florida. Texas with its 38 votes goes entirely to a Republican candidate but the popular vote was very close, and the Democratic candidate was behind by a very small margin of only 10,000 votes. In the same year, Florida with its 29 votes goes entirely to the Democratic candidate, yet the margin for the Democratic win was much larger with the popular vote win by over 1 million votes This could result in a Republican win at the Electoral College even though when the votes between the two states are counted together, the Democrats won the popular vote.

Calls for Reform

In general, it is very rare for a president to win the popular vote yet lose the election. Although this has only happened five times in U.S. History, it has occurred twice in the current century. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, about 2% of the total votes cast.

Discussion for reform of the Electoral College dates to the first years of the Constitution and has frequently been the topic of scholarly discussion. Defenders of the Electoral College argue that its violations of majority rule are an example of constitutional provisions that require super-majorities to take action. The Electoral College allows a minority to take an action—that is to select a president—and it is the only device of its kind in the Constitution. The primary way to change it is to amend the Constitution.

Since the way states count votes can affect who wins and who loses, electoral reform is by its nature political: if a party is in power, the method used to get it there is not likely to be a target of change. Despite the current climate in that Democrats support change while Republicans do not, scholars believe that the situation is only temporarily one that swings towards one party or another: One proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is a sub-national reform to the Electoral College in which states agree to commit their electoral votes, as a unit, to the winner of the aggregate, national vote. Sixteen states have signed on to date, some of which are Republican-controlled.

One major purpose of the Electoral College was to balance the power of the electorate so that votes in states with small populations would not (always) be overpowered by larger-populated states. Bipartisan action is required to make its reformation possible.

Sources and Further Reading