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Electoral vs. Popular Votes

Tracing the Relationship Between the Electoral College and Popular Vote

The Electoral College has been a sometimes-confusing, sometimes-controversial, but uniquely American institution since the Constitutional Convention. Curious students of American history and public administration have been studying the nuances of the curious system for decades, and there has been no shortage of critics highlighting the Electoral College’s shortcomings. Despite this and a number of constitutional amendments seeking to change the system, the Electoral College endures.

Here are some of the more memorable Electoral College moments in American History:

The Revolution of 1800

The presidential election of 1800, also known as the Revolution of 1800, literally changed American voting procedures. The first draft of the Constitution failed to foresee that political parties would develop in America. The inevitable change became a large influence on politics immediately following George Washington’s presidency.

Luckily, the election of 1800 compelled the drafting of the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, creating separate elections for president and vice-president.

John Adams was the Federalist contender for this election, but didn’t win the popular electoral vote. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as Democratic-Republican candidates together in 1800 and happened to tie, both winning 73 electoral votes. Since no clear winner could be determined, the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives. After much debate, Thomas Jefferson won by popular vote of the House, with ten states voting for Jefferson, four for Burr, and two casting blank ballots.

Thomas Jefferson: 61.4% of popular vote (41,330 votes); 73 electoral votes (9 states) John Adams: 38.6% of popular vote (25,952 votes); 65 electoral votes (7 states)

Elections of 1824, 1876, and 1888

John Q. Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford were all very promising candidates for the presidential election of 1824.

Andrew Jackson lost even though he had 41.4% of the popular vote and a majority (99) of electoral votes, he failed to win the absolute majority needed (131/261). As a consequence, this election also needed to be settled by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay happened to be the speaker of the house at the time, and by default was disqualified from consideration. Clay managed to sway the House to vote Adams into office, mainly due to him personally detesting Jackson.

This was the first election where the winner of the majority of electoral votes didn’t win the presidency. Jackson considered a compromise such as this to be the first of two “corrupt bargains” related to presidential elections.

John Q. Adams: 30.9% of popular vote (113,122 votes); 84 electoral votes (7 states) Andrew Jackson: 41.4% of popular vote (151,271 votes); 99 electoral votes (12 states)

Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden were the top contenders in this election. Yet again, there was no majority winner of the Electoral College votes. Initially, Tilden won 184, Hayes’s won 165, and 20 electoral votes were unresolved. South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon were the states whose electoral votes were in question.

The election of 1876 had the highest percentage of voter turnout ever with 81.8% of eligible voters taking part. This is also the only election in which a candidate for president received more than 50 percent of the popular vote but was not elected president by the Electoral College, after 20 disputed electoral votes in four states were awarded to the Republican party, tilting the election. Hayes ultimately won the unresolved electoral votes, in exchange for Republicans withdrawing troops from the south. This was the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War and became known as the Compromise of 1877.

The Compromise of 1877 is why this election was considered the most controversial election in United States history. Also, this was the closest election in terms of the number of the electoral votes, and the only time a candidate has won by only a single electoral vote.

Rutherford Hayes: 47.9% of popular vote (4,034,311 votes); 185 electoral votes (21 states) Samuel Tilden: 50.9% of popular vote (4,288,546 votes); 184 electoral votes (17 states)

Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland battled for the presidency in this election. The two vastly important swing states in this election were New York and Indiana. 201 electoral votes were needed to solidify a win that year. Had Grover

Cleveland won his home state of New York’s 36 electoral votes, he would have won by a margin of 204-197 votes.

Harrison became president, despite Cleveland having more of the popular vote. This was the third example of this happening in United States history.

Benjamin Harrison: 47.8% of popular vote (5,443,892 votes); 233 electoral votes (20 states) Grover Cleveland: 48.6% of popular vote (5,534,488 votes); 168 electoral votes (18 states)

The Election for the New Millennium

The election of 2000 saw much dispute and debate. The battle for the presidential seat saw two top contenders that are now household names: Al Gore and George W. Bush. This election was notoriously close and came down to the results of one particular state, Florida.

Since the results were too close, a recount was mandated, but the candidate who would receive those electoral votes remained a grey area, so additional recounts were conducted. This made its way to the Supreme Court, in the case of Bush v. Gore, where the justices ruled that Bush had earned the victory.

George W. Bush: 47.9% of popular vote (50,456,002 votes); 271 electoral votes (30 states) Al Gore: 48.4% of popular vote (50,999,897 votes); 266 electoral votes (20 states and DC)

Other Important Outlier Statistics of Presidential Elections

Since the early 1900’s voter turnout has seen a steady decline.

It’s also important to note that there seems to be a trend for how elections are won, particularly in the last century. The numbers of popular votes tend to be fairly close, but not the figures related to electoral votes. There is a constant up and down pattern regarding the margins for presidential wins by electoral votes.

For example, Ronald Reagan won the 1980 and 1984 elections by landslides. In the 1990’s the elections were much closer by comparison.

Every decade or so, the margins of wins by electoral vote flip-flops and becomes less exaggerated.


The Electoral College is a uniquely American institution, celebrated by some and criticized by others, but despite the strong emotions the system has induced over the decades, the institution endures. The electoral rules set forth by our founding fathers have proven to be effective fodder for political discussions in classrooms, barber shops and taverns across the country, and led to the unique circumstances of the above-mentioned elections, many of which changed the course of American history.

Learn More

The Electoral College is a core element of the American election process. As a student of Norwich University’s Master of Public Administration online program, your understanding of fundamental American processes will help you be a well-rounded public or private sector professional.

A position in government warrants a firm grasp of election history and an understanding of how the electoral and popular vote shapes election outcomes. Norwich University will provide you with a comprehensive education of public administration and how it relates to the world we live in today.


The Vanishing Voter, Penguin Random House

Bush v. Gore, Encyclopedia Britannica

United States Presidential Election, Encyclopedia Britannica

Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, Encyclopedia Britannica

The House of Representatives Elected John Quincy Adams President, History, Art & Archives

Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800, Smithsonian Magazine

The Tarnish of the Electoral College, New York Times

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