Many people ask why we have the electoral college these days, what with the ability to quickly count the popular vote and all. Well, within our system of government, created by the Constitution of the United States, we elect the president through the electoral college rather than by popular vote (Article II, Section 1, Clause 3). This can of course be changed by amending the Constitution, but it hasn’t happened yet – and doing so is a challenging process.
It’s only speculation on my part why the Constitution is written this way, but I’d suspect that it was pretty difficult to gather the popular vote in those days. Allowing different congressional districts to vote on their elector, and have their elector cast their vote, made more sense. This is probably not much of an issue if the popular vote matches the electoral college vote. But let’s face it – that doesn’t always happen.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in the presidential campaign, yet Adams won neither the popular vote nor the electoral college vote (see the preceding clause 3, as well as amendments XII and XX, for how this can happen). In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but Rutherford B. Hayes won the electoral college vote (by a single elector, in a disputed count!). The same thing happened in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland in the electoral college vote but lost the popular vote (Cleveland returned and reclaimed the presidency in 1892).
Things quieted down until the year 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500 thousand votes over George W. Bush, but lost in the electoral college. As I write this, the 2004 election holds the possibility – remote, but possible nonetheless – of the opposite happening, with John Kerry hoping to unseat Bush in a reverse of what happened 4 years ago. We may not know for a while yet.