I bet you’re under the impression that Donald Trump just won the election for the Presidency of the United States, aren’t you?
Well, you are partially correct. He did indeed win the electoral vote, but Hillary Clinton appears to have won the popular vote. Although the state registrars of voters are still tabulating the final results, it appears that the number of Americans who cast votes for her will exceed those who voted for Mr. Trump by well over 200,000 citizens.
So how could she have lost the presidency? Well, the popular vote totals are tabulated by state and converted into electoral votes. And then, with only a couple of tiny exceptions, each state is awarded to a candidate on a winner-take-all basis. Popular vote winners can thus be electoral vote losers.
Still confused? Here’s a hypothetical example to help clarify the situation. Let’s assume that one candidate wins 49 of 50 states by just a few votes per state. But let’s assume that the other candidate wins a single state — perhaps the tiny state of Rhode Island — by 100,000 votes.
The first candidate would win the Presidency in a landslide by securing most or all of the electoral votes in every state but Rhode Island. But the second candidate would receive almost 100,000 more total votes.
This is actually the second time in five Presidential elections that the popular vote winner lost the electoral vote and the election. Al Gore won more individual votes than George Bush in 2000, but was unable to claim the presidency.
So why did the Founding Fathers of the United States saddle their nation with such a bizarre election method? Why didn’t they simply stipulate that the winner of the popular vote will always become President?
Ironically, they distrusted the will of the people to make responsible decisions. They were afraid that the people would get swept away by populist rhetoric and elect a dangerous demagogue. And so they inserted an undemocratic interim step into the election process in an attempt to minimize the possibility of a catastrophic popular choice.
In hindsight, it’s perfectly fair to criticize the mechanism of the electoral vote as a method that was crafted by America’s elite Founding Fathers to thwart the popular will. But imagine the astonishment of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson if they could learn that the most populist American presidential candidate in history owes his election to their elitist, undemocratic, non-populist mechanism.