WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the 2000 US presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Gore garnered 540 000 more votes nationwide than Republican George W Bush.
Yet Bush was the ultimate winner because, in the end, he was awarded the most electoral votes. A similar situation seemed to be playing out early Wednesday, as Democrat Hillary Clinton was leading in the popular vote, but trailing in the electoral count.
Although the United States likes to think of itself as the world’s preeminent democracy, the “people” do not directly elect their president. Instead, the Constitution calls for states to choose “electors” who do the actual electing. It’s known as the Electoral College.
Each state is allotted electors equal to their congressional delegations, meaning there are 538 electors total (435
representatives and 100 senators, plus three for the District of Columbia). A candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win.
In 48 states, the candidate with the most votes cast by the people – even in the case of the slimmest of margins – wins all the state’s electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska allot electoral votes by congressional districts.
In the nation’s 57 presidential elections to date, including the Gore-Bush election in 2000, there have been four in which a candidate lost the popular vote but still became president.
But the Electoral College also has its strong backers, arguing that it diminishes the potential impact of voter fraud or complications of razor-close outcomes by isolating the problem to smaller geographic units.
A nationwide recount would be a much larger undertaking than in a single state, supporters say.
They also refute the argument that the current system forces candidates to focus only on swing states, arguing that, with shifting population demographics, there is no such thing as a permanent swing state.