The Electoral College and the 2000 Election

Popular Vote vs. Electoral Vote in the 2000 Election

The 2000 election will always rank as one of the strangest in American history. Political scientists and eventually historians will be dissecting this election for decades and perhaps even centuries to come. To look for precedents that resembled the 2000 election scholars had to go back to the 19th century, to the elections of 1888, 1876, and 1824.  Those were the only elections in American history where a winner in the popular vote was denied the presidency through the Electoral College system.

Before the 2000 drama, many Americans had forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that the popular vote does not actually choose the president. Presidents are chosen by the Electoral College, a temporary meeting of 538 members held a more than a month after the popular vote is counted. Americans had been lulled into complacency since for all of the 20th century the Electoral College followed the popular vote outcome.  But they now know that it is possible for the Electoral College to choose a candidate who does not win the popular vote.

This is because electors are chosen state by state via a "winner take all" formula. That means that whatever candidate wins a state, that candidate gets all that state's electoral vote. Even though Bush and Gore were in a virtual dead heat in Florida, all 27 of Florida's electoral votes were going to go to either Bush or Gore.

There are at least two ways that in a close election, a candidate can win the Electoral College without winning the popular vote, both centering on the margin of victory in big population states with many electoral votes. In the first scenario, if one candidate wins the large population states by close margins and the other candidate wins the less populated states by much larger percentages, the popular vote winner can lose in the Electoral College. This is what happened in 1888. The Republicans won close battles in high population northern states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. The Democrats won overwhelming victories in the smaller population states in the South. Thus the South tipped the popular vote to the Democrats. But the Republicans won nearly half their total electoral votes from close victories in the 4 large population northern states and thus won the Electoral College.

There is another way a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College, also focusing on different outcomes in large population states vs. small population states. If a candidate runs up large margins of victory in the big states but loses many of the small states by close votes, he can win more votes and still lose in the Electoral College. This is what happened to Al Gore. Nationally, Gore won 560,000 more votes than Bush. Gore won two of the three largest states by large margins, while Bush won his home state of Texas. Gore won California (54 electoral votes) by almost 1.3 million votes. That advantage was offset by Bush winning Texas (32 electoral votes) by almost 1.4 million votes. But Gore won New York (33 electoral votes) by more than 1.5 million votes. He also won Illinois (22 electoral votes) by approximately 570,000 votes. Gore would have benefited from having his vote spread more evenly through the country. Bush's closer victories in many smaller states gave him more electoral votes than Gore's larger margins of victories in California, New York, and Illinois.

Bush also benefited from the fact that the electoral vote is not completely based on population size. Each state gets as many electoral votes as they have members in the House of Representatives and the Senate. States' House delegations are based on population, but each state has two Senators. So every state gets at least 3 electoral votes, regardless of population, essentially two extra votes not based on population. Bush carried 30 states, while Gore carried only 20 states and the District of Columbia. Thus Bush got a net benefit of 18 electoral votes not based on population from carrying more states than Gore.

Reform of the Electoral College?.

Since in the 2000 election the winner of the popular vote was denied the presidency, one might expect a groundswell of opinion demanding that the Electoral College be abolished as an anachronism. Yet proposals for Electoral College reform have been sitting on the shelf for more than a century. Any attempt to abolish or reform the Electoral College would face huge hurdles. It would require a Constitutional Amendment, which requires approval of not only two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, but also approval of three-quarters of the states. Many Democratic legislators recognize their party’s advantage in the current system and are as reluctant to vote to give it up as Republicans are to vote to give up their advantage under the current campaign financing system.

But the most difficult obstacle to Electoral College reform is the issue of what would replace the current system. Going to direct popular vote would make the question of vote fraud a much more difficult issue. With the Electoral College, if there are allegations of fraud in one or two places, they affect only one or two state’s electoral votes, which are rarely enough to change the outcome in the Electoral College. If there are allegations that Democrats in Chicago or Republicans in Arizona tampered with the vote count, the effect on the national popular vote is relevant to the final outcome only if changing those states’ electoral votes would change the outcome in the Electoral College. In fact, this is rarely the case. But in a very close popular vote, allegations of fraud in anywhere in the country could be enough to affect the overall total, leaving the final result in limbo as the courts sift through multiple claims of voting irregularities.

Another tricky issue if the popular vote determines the outcome, is what kind of plurality would be necessary to win. Because of third and fourth parties, in four of the last ten presidential elections, the winner won less that 50% of the total popular vote. Would 50% of the popular vote be required to win? 40%? 33%? If no minimum plurality were set, a candidate with little popular support could win a 3 or 4 way race, thus encouraging minor parties and splinter candidates from major parties. If a minimum plurality were set, a method for selecting the final winner in an election where no one met that plurality would be necessary. Would there be a second, run-off election like in many other presidential systems? We have enough trouble getting voters to the polls once in November and the campaigns are long enough already. Would the Congress choose the president in that case? Not a popular option.

Some propose that because of the problems of vote fraud, minority presidents, and/or second rounds of voting, rather than abolishing the Electoral College, it should be reformed. Perhaps members of the Electoral College could be selected by Congressional district rather than statewide. Or perhaps a state’s electoral vote could be split based on the percentage of popular votes in that state. These approaches would significantly reduce the problem of local vote fraud affecting national outcomes. But they could make the problem of multiple candidate races worse. Local candidates could enter in various states, with a reasonable chance of winning congressional district races or a share of the states’ electoral vote division. Third and fourth national party candidates could gain shares of many states’ votes under such systems. In either case, the problem of splitting the vote among more than two candidates with the result that no one wins nationally in the first round reappears. And while splitting states’ electoral votes lessens the probability, any form of Electoral College retains the possibility of the popular vote winner losing the Electoral College vote, thus losing the election on a technicality.

The Gore-Bush election may well be remembered not so much for who won, but how he won.  The problem of the Electoral College diverging from the popular vote remains as long as the Electoral College is retained.  Yet reform or abolition of the Electoral College seems unlikely.