Explainer: How Hillary won the popular vote but lost the election

Oval Office
The Oval Office as it looked during the Jimmy Carter presidency. (Photo via Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum)

By Duke Omara

In almost any other democracy, Hillary Clinton would be president today. She won the popular vote but still lost the election. So what happened?

The Electoral College happened.

Is that where electrical engineers get their degrees?

No. The Electoral College is a uniquely American process enshrined in Art. II, Sec. I of the U.S. Constitution through which the President and Vice President are elected. Each of the 50 states (and the District of Colombia), has as many electors as it has Representatives and Senators in the Congress. There is a total of 538 votes, and at least 270  are needed to win the presidency.

This year Clinton won 228 electoral votes while Donald Trump won 290, according to the most recent figures. But in terms of the popular vote, she won 60 million votes compared to Trump’s 59.8 million.

What’s the math behind this?

Here’s an example. Illinois has 18 Representatives, and like all states has two senators. So 18+2= 20 electoral votes. California has two senators and 53 Representatives for a total of 55 electoral votes, the most in the nation. So on and so forth for all states. When you cast your vote, it doesn’t go directly to the candidate of your choice but rather to a group of electors in your state who are then required to cast that vote in the Electoral College. All states, except Nebraska and Maine, have a winner-take-all system, which means whoever wins the popular vote gets to keep all the electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine have this other way of apportioning votes that’s too complicated to go into here. Get it?

Sure, I get the gist of it. How did this come about?

Well, back in 1787, a bunch of men met in Philadelphia for a constitutional convention to try and fix the weak central government that was in place at that time. Because the United States is a republic, they had to come up with a way to elect a president, and they considered three alternatives on how to accomplish that.

The first proposal was to have the Congress choose the president but this suggestion was quickly thrown out. Some of the conventioneers felt this method was too divisive and would leave the system open to corruption, interference from foreign governments and other bad behavior. In other words, what would pass as normal stuff these days.

The second idea, which was also rejected, was to have state legislatures select the president. The biggest drawback to this idea was the fear that a president would be so indebted to state legislatures at the expense of the federal authority, it would undermine the whole system.

Finally, they settled on indirect election of the president. Thus the Electoral College was born. It should be noted that this was not an original idea in itself and it can be traced back to the Roman Senate of which many of the men present at the convention had a deep admiration for. But let’s leave that alone for now.

So far so good. So what’s the problem?

It seems that the founders of the Republic in setting up the process had not counted on one thing: the emergence of political parties. As the parties grew, their influence started to expand beyond state lines. Party bosses became powerful enough to handpick electors who (surprise, surprise) voted for candidates the party bosses (not the people) wanted. Things came to a head in the presidential elections of 1800 when the two candidates, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, tied in electoral votes. The tie was eventually broken by the House of Representatives on the thirty-sixth ballot.

To resolve this crisis and to make sure nothing like it ever happened again, Congress passed the 12th Amendment in 1804 that required separate votes for President and Vice President.

Enough of that. Hillary is still not president.

True. But that is how the system is set up, and it all comes down to local balloting. Electoral votes are awarded not on a national level but state by state. If you look at the map of the 2016 presidential election, you will see the map is almost all red because Donald Trump won with a disproportionately larger geographical spread. Thus, by taking more states, he captured the election. Clinton’s victory in large states was overwhelmed by the electoral votes from many smaller states that swung for Trump.

So, you can win the most populated states and still not be a winner?  Really?

Ok. Let’s try this again. Hillary carried states with some of the highest populations, like California and New York, while Trump won in places with smaller populations, as in most of the country between Montana and Florida. Those smaller states’ electoral votes added up and that’s why Trump won.

Does this happen often? 

It seems to be happening more frequently these past few elections. This is the second time in the last five presidential elections that it has happened. Probably the most famous instance in recent times was Al Gore’s loss to George W Bush in 2000. Before that, it happened in 1888, 1876 and 1824.

Shouldn’t the candidate with the most votes get the spoils?

Again, the Electoral College is enshrined in the founding documents of the Republic and changing the U.S. Constitution can be incredibly hard, especially in these divided times. It can be done either by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate through a joint resolution, or by a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures. No amendment has ever been passed using the convention method.

The United States Constitution has been such an enduring document precisely because it is so hard to change, and that’s why the Electoral College will probably be around for the foreseeable future.

Strangely enough, the president does not have any constitutional role in the amendment process and an amendment can go through without his signature or approval.

So every so often, members of the losing team will cry foul and ask for a revamp of the Electoral College system, but the movement almost always fades and nothing gets done. Paradoxically, people who ask for the change become unusually quiet when their side wins and it’s the other guys who are complaining.

Photo at top: The Oval Office as it looked during the Jimmy Carter presidency. (Photo: The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum)