An Imperfect System: Presidential Elections Where The Voters Didn't Decide the Outcome

Created: 15 July, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
9 min read

“Americans vote for their president.”

Well, yes and no. America’s presidential election system relies on the Electoral College, a group of men and women chosen by state parties to vote in their favor. When Americans go to the polls, they choose their candidate of choice, and trust that the party electors will vote as the citizens have chosen.

Each state has a certain number of electors: California has the most, with 55; other states, like Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska, have as few as three. The number is created by adding together the state’s national representatives and senators.

All states except Nebraska and Maine are “winner-take-all” states; that is, if the Republicans win 51 percent of the vote in Texas, all of Texas’ 38 electors go toward the Republican candidate. In Nebraska and Maine, votes are split proportionally.

Confusing, I know.

Although the system is a little strange, the candidate with the most votes usually wins elections. Even in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won less than forty percent of the popular vote, but won enough states and electors to usher him into the White House -- more than double the runner-up.

Lincoln had enough electoral votes to win, even though he didn’t win a majority. The Electoral College encourages smart campaign strategy, and usually reflects the will of the voter.

That said, the system isn’t perfect. Four times in U.S. history, the Electoral College decision didn’t match up with the final voting results.

Let’s take a look back at these elections:

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The Election of 1824

In the 1820s, only one political party dominated in the United States. The Democratic-Republican Party had beaten out the Federalists, and with them any serious competition. The “Era of Good Feelings” had begun, along with early industrialization, westward expansion, and growing international American clout.

But the Democratic-Republicans had more than enough problems of their own. After an easy election in 1820 in which James Monroe was unanimously elected with no opposition, 1824 was riddled with internal strife. War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford were all popular in different regions. Policy took a back seat to personal rivalry.

When the election was all said and done, none of the four candidates found themselves with the 131 Electoral College votes needed to claim the presidency. Jackson had won over 41 percent of the popular vote, and with it, 12 states and 99 electors. Adams followed, with 7 states and 84 electors, and less than 31 percent of the popular vote. Clay had more votes and states than Crawford, but fewer electors, placing him in last place.

As per the Constitution, the House of Representatives convened in early 1825 to pick a winner out of the top three. When Clay learned that he - the Speaker - wouldn’t be allowed into the House as a candidate, he threw his support behind Adams, largely due to his dislike of Jackson. Clay’s influence was strong enough that Adams was elected on the first ballot. When Adams took office, he appointed Clay secretary of state, effectively appointing him as Adams’ presidential successor.

Jackson was outraged, having won both the electoral and popular vote, but not the presidency. He accused Adams and Clay of striking a “corrupt bargain,” in which Clay had given Adams the presidency in return for a cabinet position. Jackson would leave the Democratic-Republicans to form the Democratic Party, and beat out Adams in 1828, one of the most vitriolic presidential elections of all time.

The Election of 1876

If the “Era of Good Feelings” was calm and peaceful, the Reconstruction period after the Civil War was tense and divisive.

Even ten years after the war had ended, the South’s industrial and economic centers in towns like Atlanta and Charleston were still smoldering. Union troops still occupied many ex-Confederate strongholds. Despite peace, the South was still treated as military-occupied territory. The nation was divided economically, racially, and regionally: in the North, Lincoln’s Republicans celebrated victory, while in the South, Democrats resented Yankee attrition.

In short, the South -- and the nation as a whole -- was a mess.

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Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes became the Republican nominee after seven ballots at the Convention; New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden was chosen by the Democrats as a reform nominee, famed for criticizing corruption in the Grant administration and cracking down on organized crime in New York City.

The 1876 presidential campaign was notoriously ugly. Tilden characterized Hayes and his fellow Republicans as dishonest; the Republicans countered by “waving the bloody shirt” and blaming Democrats for the death and destruction caused by the Civil War.

The election saw the highest turnout in American history, at 81.1 percent. When election results finally came in, disputes erupted in multiple states. One of the electors in Oregon was suspected to be ineligible because of his position as a former postmaster. In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, results favored Tilden, but Republicans claimed fraud and voter suppression had obscured the true results. Republican-dominated state electoral commissions planned to give the votes to Hayes. Twenty electoral votes were up for grabs.

Hayes was left with a majority of only one electoral vote. Tilden had won a reported 50.9 percent of the popular vote to Hayes’ 47.9 percent. However, with the myriad technicalities, Democrats cried foul, chanting, “Tilden or blood!” For a moment, it appeared as though another Civil War was in the making. A bullet even pierced Hayes’ front window in Columbus.

In January 1877, with Inauguration Day mere weeks away, Congress hastily passed a bill to create a temporary Electoral Commission to settle the results. The commission was made up of 15 congressmen, senators, and justices, seven Democrat and seven Republican, plus one impartial Justice, for the purpose of settling the electoral dispute.

When the dust had settled, all 20 disputed electors were given to Hayes. Angered Democrats were sated with the Compromise of 1877, which promised to rebuild the South’s industrial centers and pull federal troops out of Southern cities, effectively ending Reconstruction. Hayes was quietly inaugurated on March 3, 1877; Tilden graciously accepted defeat.

The Election of 1888

A mere 12 years after the election of 1876, the United States was in the throes of the Gilded Age. The economy was booming, population was exploding, and the nation was at peace. Increased industrialization meant higher wages and living standards, and the Republicans and Democrats were evenly-matched political rivals.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland was running for re-election, squaring off against Indiana senator Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland, in an annual address to the nation, called for lower tariffs and taxes in 1887; Republicans responded that tariffs and taxes were necessary to protect American industry from foreign competition, and trade protectionism was born as the main issue of 1888.

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Cleveland was an incumbent shoo-in with an already firm grip on re-election. However, Harrison campaigned passionately, even giving speeches from his front porch in Indianapolis. Scandals plagued both sides of the election -- Harrison’s campaign was accused of bribing voters, and the pro-Cleveland Murchison letter voiced British support for Cleveland.

After the election, Cleveland had won 48.6 percent of the vote, beating out Harrison’s 47.8 percent. However, Harrison won the swing states of Indiana and New York (Cleveland’s home state) by less than 1 percent, giving him a majority in the Electoral College.

Having completed only one term, Cleveland was evicted from the White House. A probably apocryphal story relates Mrs. Cleveland imploring White House staff to keep up the building, as they’d be back in four years. The First Lady’s prediction came true: in 1892, Cleveland became the first- and only- president to serve two nonconsecutive terms.

The Election of 2000

Of all the elections in which the electoral vote result didn’t match up with the popular vote, 2000 is certainly the most well-known. George W. Bush and Al Gore emerged early as Democratic and Republican candidates, and domestic issues dominated the campaign, including taxes, welfare programs, and the budget.

Despite Bush’s lack of experience, and negative feelings left over from the Clinton scandal, campaigning heated up until the election. However, it wasn’t until Election Day that things really got interesting.

As results started pouring in, it became apparent that the race would be close. By the end of Election Day, Bush had won 246 electoral votes to Gore’s 255; both needed 270 to win. Oregon, New Mexico, and Florida were in dispute.

New Mexico and Oregon -- each with only a few electors -- were both awarded to Gore by close margins; however, Florida’s 25 electoral votes were still in dispute. By the end of the week, Bush was leading Gore in Florida by less than 1,000 votes. Mechanical and then hand recounts followed.

By November 26, Bush was declared the winner of Florida by only 537 votes. The Florida Supreme Court called for a recount, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against it, 7-2. On December 12, more than a month after Election Day, Bush was declared the winner of Florida, and with it its 25 electors -- by a margin of .0092 percent. Bush had eked by with a total of 271 electors and 47.9 percent of the vote, compared to Gore’s 266 electors and 48.4 percent of the vote.

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Many Democrats accused Green Party nominee Ralph Nader of being a “spoiler” in the 2000 election. Nader won almost three million votes nationwide. Of those, more than 97,000 were in Florida.

That said, the margin by which Bush won Florida is still in dispute. It’s entirely possible that Gore actually won Florida, and would have won the election had SCOTUS not cut off recounts by December 12.

Bush became president, and the election system was modernized with new machines in the hopes of more accurate counting. In addition, the election of 2000 would spur discussion of electoral reform for years to come.

The Election of 2016?

Could 2016 go down in history as another crazy election? That is, crazier than it already has been?

There are a number of factors to consider. Some predictions have Clinton winning handedly, but Trump and Clinton are statistically tied in a number of recent polls. There is also the influence of third parties to consider, as the popularity of both major party candidates is lacking.

If Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein garner enough votes -- or even win a single state -- it is possible that 2016 will join the list of presidential elections where the winner didn't receive majority support from voters under the current choose one (plurality) voting method.

In a scenario where neither Clinton nor Trump reach 270 electors, the vote would go to the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by Republicans. If #NeverTrump support in Congress is strong enough among Republicans, Johnson could get elected. More likely, however, Republicans would throw support behind the Republican nominee.

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