Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has claimed that the Electoral College must be abolished because it was a product of slavery—which it of course isn’t. In saying so, she echoed Hillary Clinton, the last presidential candidate to come out on the losing end of a popular-electoral vote split, who has also called for scrapping the time-tested method of electing presidents.
Soon-to-be Congresswoman Cortez was responding to a tweet by GQ writer Julia Ioffe: “We are a country where two presidents who both lost the popular vote have now placed four justices on the Supreme Court. Democracy in action.”
Ioffe was only half right, since President George W. Bush named both of his high court picks during his second term, for which he won the popular vote by three million votes. Bush did lose the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000 by 500,000 votes—but so what? As I explain in my book Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections, none of the presidents who won without the popular vote in any way undermined democracy.
There are five candidates who won the popular vote but still lost their elections: Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, Gore, and Clinton. Let’s start with Jackson, whose famous gripe that the 1824 election had been stolen had nothing to do with his beating John Quincy Adams by 44,000 votes. Jackson, in fact, won more electoral votes than Adams too—but not a majority, so the race went to the House. House Speaker Henry Clay, who himself came in third place in the popular vote and fourth in the Electoral College, helped shift members behind Adams. After Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, Jackson and the emerging Democratic party spent four years talking about a “corrupt bargain.”
While 1824 was the first year that popular voting became common, a quarter of the existing states still did not select their slates of presidential electors by popular voting: New York, Vermont, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. New York alone would have likely given Adams a national popular vote victory.
In 1876, the country was still recovering from the Civil War when it nearly broke out into another conflict over the litigated election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Tilden won the popular vote by more than 200,000.
But 20 electors in the states of Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon were in dispute. The real focus was in the three southern states, where Democrats suppressed the votes of recently enfranchised blacks and white Republicans.
Eventually, after a long fight that lasted almost up to Inauguration Day, Congress accepted the 8-7 party line vote of an electoral commission made up of senators, House members, and Supreme Court justices, handing the presidency to Rutherford. Furious Democrats took to the streets, chanting “Tilden or blood!” and calling Hayes “Rutherfraud.”
It’s impossible to know who the rightful winner of the popular vote was that year. A majority of voters in East Feliciana, Louisiana, were black in 1876, but election results recorded one Republican vote in that parish. The Red Shirts, a South Carolina paramilitary group, worked almost as hard as the Ku Klux Klan to stop blacks and Republicans from voting. In Florida, Democrats handed out Tilden tickets decorated with Republican symbols to former slaves who were either illiterate or who were thought to be illiterate. In an honest election, it’s very likely Hayes would have won the popular vote too.
A dozen years later, the split happened again, this time ousting an incumbent president.
Democratic President Grover Cleveland won about 100,000 more votes nationally than Republican Benjamin Harrison. Yet Harrison secured 233 electoral votes, while Cleveland netted just 168. This was the most similar election to the one in 2016 in that there were no legal grounds to challenge the outcome.
It’s also interesting in that Cleveland sought to run up vote totals in the heavily Democratic Southern states—which were going to give their electoral votes to him anyway. Another oddity was that Cleveland, previously a New York governor, and Harrison, a former Indiana senator, both lost their home states.
Then there’s 2000, which was unusually close, both in the national popular vote and in the contest for Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Even though Hillary’s popular vote win in 2016 was six times larger than Gore’s popular vote victory, the former vice president had a more legitimate grievance: he lost one of the largest states in the country by 537 votes only for the election to be settled by the Supreme Court.
Yet well into 2001, Bush won another Florida recount—one jointly funded by the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Palm Beach Post, the St. Petersburg Times, and Tribune Media. This tally determined that, assuming Gore’s demand for a limited recount in four Democratic counties had proceeded, Bush would have still carried the state by between 225 and 493 votes, fewer than the 537 but still a victory.
However, the media consortium also found that under a statewide recount, preferred by the Bush campaign, it was possible Gore could have won by between 60 and 171 votes (though only under the most liberal interpretation of what would count as a Gore vote). That was still enough to maintain the article of faith among Democrats that Florida was stolen.
This brings us back to Clinton’s 2.8 million vote margin over Trump in 2016, and Trump’s concurrent 304-227 Electoral College triumph. It’s that year’s geography that makes the ultimate argument in favor of the Electoral College. A president is supposed to have broad geographic support rather than being selected by a state or small group of states. This should be especially true for those who claim to be so worried about political tribalism. Clearly, the Electoral College is supposed to be the ultimate guard against such tribalism.
Clinton beat Trump by 4.3 million votes in California, the only state where she had a larger margin of victory in 2016, with 61.5 percent of the vote, than Obama had in 2012, with 60 percent. Registered Democrats in California increased by 1.1 million in the last eight years, while Republican registration dropped by 400,000. Also, the general election Senate race had two Democratic candidates, which further depressed Republican turnout.
Without California, Trump would have won the popular vote by 1.4 million, according to an analysis by Investor’s Business Daily. Clinton’s average margin of victory over Trump in blue states was 53.5 percent. Had this been her margin in California, the race would have been a popular vote dead heat. Yet in 2012, a race without California would have still seen Obama defeat Romney by 2 million votes.
Thus did the Electoral College work as its creators intended.
Historically, there has been a party bias to popular/electoral splits, with Democrats coming out on the losing end. That’s led the left to contend that rural America has an unfair advantage over the rest of the country and that the Electoral College favors Republicans.
Yet just before the 2016 election, no one seemed to think this was the case. As polls tightened that fall, the nightmare scenario for Democrats was that Trump would win the popular vote—and spend the next four years calling the election rigged.
That’s why the Clinton campaign ignored Michigan and Wisconsin and poured advertising dollars into Chicago and New Orleans to drive up the popular vote totals for what they believed was leaving nothing to chance.
Consequently, 11 blue states have entered into what’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which they pledge to award their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. If enough states are in the compact to reach the needed 270 votes, they could end up deciding elections—and they’re only 98 electoral votes away from being able to do just that. This is an end run around amending the Constitution.
As for Cortez, it’s been fairly well established that the Electoral College helped end slavery rather than resulting from it. After Abraham Lincoln won with a paltry plurality of the popular vote and overwhelming majority of the electoral vote in 1860, the Southern states seceded in part because they worried the Electoral College was stacked against them.
The left sees moving to the popular vote as a means of gaining power. But a national popular vote isn’t a bad idea because it would help Democrats: it wouldn’t. Rather, it would undermine the vision that a president come as close as possible to representing a broad cross section of the country.
Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for the Daily Signal and author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections. The views expressed are solely his own. Title and publications are listed are for identification purposes only. Follow him @FredLucasWH.