In the US, You Can Win the Popular Vote But Lose the Election

In 2016, Trump won the presidency despite Clinton receiving almost 3 million more votes. Here’s why.

3 min read
In 2016, Hillary Clinton Won The Popular Vote But Lost The Election. This is how.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency despite Hillary Clinton receiving almost 3m more votes, because the electoral college voted for Trump. In the history of presidential elections in United States, presidents have often come to power without winning the popular vote.

President John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W Bush in 2000, and most recently Donald J Trump in 2016 lost the popular vote, but ended up taking the oval office.

How does this happen?

Every four years, American citizens, aged 18 and older, are eligible to cast their vote for the president of the United States. But several voters don't realise they aren't directly voting for the president. The US has a system called the Electoral College that stands in place to elect the President and the VP that determine the fate of the country's next four years.

What Is The Electoral College?

The electoral college is a compromise. In 1787, delegates created the Electoral College by coming to an understanding between who should cast the final vote – electing the president by a vote in Congress, or electing through a popular vote by qualified citizens.

When Americans cast their ballots for the US president, they are actually voting for a representative of that candidate’s party who is their elector. Electors are candidates chosen by their state parties prior to the general election who cast their vote for president.

There are 538 electors who then vote for the president on behalf of the people in their state.

The popular vote, in comparison, is simply which candidate has received the highest number of votes cast, as Hilary Clinton did in 2016.


What Does It Mean For The ‘Winner’ To ‘Take it All’?

The electoral college nearly always operates with a 'winner-takes-all' system. What this means is that the candidate with the highest number of votes in a state claims all of that state’s electoral votes.

For example, in 2016, Trump beat Clinton in Florida by a margin of just 2.2%, but that meant he claimed all 29 of Florida’s crucial electoral votes.

This is crucial, especially in swing states (where the Indian-American vote has been predicted to be a change-maker). Small margins in swing states, like the one in 2016 Florida, meant that, regardless of Clinton’s popular vote lead, Trump was able to nab victory in several swing states and therefore, win more electoral college votes.


How Are Electoral Votes Assigned?

There is a minimum of three votes per state, but the number of electoral votes a state is assigned is somewhat congruent with its population. Therefore, the value of electoral votes varies across states in the US.

The least populous states like North and South Dakota and the smaller states of New England are overrepresented because of the required minimum of three electoral votes. Meanwhile, densely populated states like California, Texas and Florida, are underrepresented in the electoral college.

Several use this to argue that the system of electoral colleges is, in fact, flawed and should be done away with.


What to Expect in The 2020 Election?

The 2020 US Election is now a day away.

The final NPR Electoral College map analysis shows Democrat Joe Biden going into Election Day with the clear edge, while President Trump has a narrow but not impossible path through the states key to winning the presidency.

The possibility of a Trump win, therefore, is not ruled out entirely. Will 2016 repeat itself?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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