NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Electoral College Legitimizes The Winner

November 3, 2000

In the United States, the president and vice president are elected not by a national popular vote, but by the Electoral College. Because this can result in a candidate who receives the most popular votes losing, close elections are usually accompanied by calls to abolish the college and substitute direct presidential election.

Voters in each state actually choose between electors pledged to particular candidates, and in almost all states, the electors of the presidential ticket that receives the most popular votes statewide meet to cast their votes.

  • In Nebraska and Maine, electors are chosen by congressional district; thus electors for two or more candidates could end up voting.
  • After the 1968 election, a proposed constitutional amendment for direct election was narrowly defeated in Congress -- although a Gallup poll indicated it would have been ratified easily by the requisite three-fourths of the states.
  • There are nearly 80 combinations of state votes that could produce a 269 to 269 deadlock in the Electoral College, throwing the election into the House of Representatives.
  • The last popular-vote winner defeated in the college was Grover Cleveland in 1888.

Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison because he pursued a foolish election strategy, says political scientist Brian Janiskee, of California State University, San Bernardino. Cleveland ran a divisive sectional campaign, tallying huge popular victories in the South while losing narrowly in northeastern and midwestern states.

In close elections, or ones in which there is a strong third-party candidate, the Electoral College legitimizes the winner: for example, Bill Clinton was chosen by a majority of the Electors in 1992, although most voters pulled the lever for other candidates.

Source: Brian Janiskee, "In Praise of the Electoral College," Precept No. 247, November 1, 2000, Claremont Institute, 250 West First Street, Suite 330, Claremont, Calif. 91711, (909) 621-6825; John B. Anderson (Center for Voting and Democracy), "Electoral College outlives usefulness," USA Today, November 2, 2000.


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