More people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, but it’s Trump who will become America’s 45th president. This outcome has, of course, brought a new wave of scrutiny to the way the nation's democracy functions, and a lot of people have been wondering if the Electoral College has altered an election outcome before.
The answer is yes. In fact, this has happened no fewer than four or perhaps five times in American history: The elections of 1876, 1888, and 2000 all ended with the popular vote winner being denied the presidency due to the electoral college. Now, we can add 2016 to that list.
Many also cite the 1824 presidential election — a ridiculous four-way race that was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives — as an example of a popular vote-electoral college split. This isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also a tad misleading: A handful of states, including some big ones like New York, didn’t hold popular votes that year, and instead appointed their electors through state legislatures.
Most of these elections were highly controversial due to factors other than the popular vote-electoral college split. The 1824 election is known as the “corrupt bargain,” because one of the losing candidates, Henry Clay, threw his weight behind the ultimate winner, John Quincy Adams, in exchange for an appointment in Adams’ administration. In 1876, the popular vote was disputed in no less than three states, while the 2000 election was ultimately decided by a Supreme Court decision.
And what became of the candidates who were robbed of their rightful place in the Oval Office? Two of them — Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland* — won elections four years later. The other two — Samuel Tilden and Al Gore — did not.
This may sound fundamentally undemocratic, and it is. Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Electoral College will go anywhere anytime soon. Abolishing it entirely would require a Constitutional amendment, which is an extremely tall order. Passing such an amendment would require the consent of states that derive outsized power from the electoral college system, which includes small states like Wyoming and large swing states like Ohio. Why would lawmakers in such states vote to reduce their own power? They wouldn’t.
There’s one way the Electoral College could potentially be circumvented without requiring a Constitutional amendment, but this, too, is a long shot. If enough states passed laws requiring all of their electors to go to the candidate who received the popular vote nationwide, the electoral college would, in effect, be completely neutered.
This is known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It only works, though, if a collection of states totaling 270 electoral votes (the minimum needed to win the presidency) passed such a law. Although several states have passed this law, they only total 165 electoral votes, and every one of them is solidly Democratic.
The electoral college is a flat subversion of democracy, and by sheer virtue of the 2000 election, has caused incalculable damage to America. Then again, it’s also a pillar on which the country was founded. The founding fathers created the electoral college because they did not want the people to directly elect presidents in a democratic fashion. They got their wish.
*Cleveland was president before as well, making him the only POTUS to serve two non-consecutive terms.