- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000

With most polls pointing toward a close presidential election this November, is it likely the candidates with the greater popular vote will lose? Indeed it is, because even if one ticket wins "big" in certain states, narrow wins by the opposition in other states, under our winner-take-all system, could allow the party with the lesser popular vote to prevail in the electoral college.
The electoral college enshrined in the Constitution, and thus almost impervious to change has long been recognized as a flawed mechanism. Because the allocation of electoral votes is based on data from the last census, now 10 years old, it cannot allow for the population migrations of recent years. Even more serious, the winner-take-all provision effectively disenfranchises the "losing" party in every state. Al Gore may win California by a whisker in the popular vote, but he will nevertheless receive all of that state's 54 electoral votes. Statistical analysis by one scholar, Charles W. Bischoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that in an election as close as the one between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, or that between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, there is an even chance that the electoral count will contradict the popular vote. Indeed, this has already happened three times, sometimes under bizarre circumstances.
The first instance in which the popular verdict was overturned was in 1824. None of the four presidential candidates from the fledgling parties of that day gained a majority in either the popular vote or the electoral college. As a result, the issue was turned over to the House of Representatives. There, after much wheeling and dealing, the presidency was awarded to John Quincy Adams, despite the fact his popular vote was far below that of Andrew Jackson. Charges he had been elected by a "corrupt bargain" would plague Adams throughout his single term.
The second minority presidency resulted from an equally controversial election in 1876. At that time federal troops still occupied many of the former Confederate states, and in some of them the voting had been accompanied by bribery, intimidation and violence. On the day after the election, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden appeared to have defeated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by a single vote in the electoral college, even while losing the popular vote by more than 250,000 votes.
But four states, all but one in the South, sent in competing sets of returns, and it was up to Congress to determine which were valid. After weeks of acrimonious debate, the two houses of Congress agreed on an electoral commission to settle the matter. Although supposedly bipartisan, the commission may have been secretly stacked in favor of the Republicans. In any case, when the commission voted it awarded all of the contested ballots to the Republicans by an 8 to 7 vote, and Hayes won the election by a single electoral vote.
Having lost in the popular vote, Hayes brought no mandate to the Oval Office. The strong odor of fraud that accompanied his election was even more damaging; the honest Ohioan was referred to by Democrats as "his fraudulency," and enjoyed scarcely more respect in his own party. When Hayes left office in 1881, one wag observed he had come in with an electoral majority of one but departed by unanimous consent.
The third instance in which a president was elected without a popular majority was the least controversial. President Grover Cleveland had broken the Republicans' 24-year hold on the White House in 1884, but had done little to ingratiate himself with the public. The Republicans chose Benjamin Harrison of Indiana to run against Cleveland in 1888, and made the country's perceived need of a protective tariff their flagship issue. Cleveland was charged with being a closet free-trader, and the Democratic rebuttal was ineffectual, in part because Cleveland believed it unseemly for a president to campaign actively for re-election.
On Election Day Harrison received 90,000 fewer popular votes than his opponent, but won comfortably in the electoral college. When the grateful Harrison told one Pennsylvania politician that "Providence has given us the victory," the Pennsylvanian assured reporters that Providence had had nothing to do with it. Cleveland's revenge came four years later, when he became the first and only president to regain the Oval Office after being defeated for re-election.
If this year's election should see the electoral winner fall short in the popular vote, the reactions are quite predictable. The losers will complain loudly that the people's will has been thwarted, and that the electoral college should have been abolished long ago. But will the new president be seriously damaged by the manner of his victory?
Indeed he will. Bill Clinton has maintained good job performance ratings despite scandals and despite having failed to gain a majority of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. The presidency is such an important office that it confers a degree of prestige on any incumbent. But for the electoral college to elect as president a candidate who had lost in the popular voting would diminish the presidential office and further erode popular confidence in government.
Nevertheless, political bosses in states like California and New York are unlikely to change a system that is an important part of their political power.

John M. Taylor, of McLean, Va., is the author of numerous books in history and biography.

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