When the President Doesn't Get the Most Votes

Donald Trump has won the election to be our next president. But so far, Hillary Clinton has won more votes. How does a candidate win the presidency without getting the most votes? By winning the Electoral College, as President-elect Trump has done.

When citizens vote, their votes are known as the “popular vote.” And so far, Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote by a narrow margin of about 230,000 votes nationwide. (Not all the official vote totals are in from every state yet.) But our presidents are not elected by the popular vote. They are actually elected by the Electoral College. Because of the way the Electoral College works, in very close races there is always a chance that a candidate could win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

Even though citizens see the names of the candidates on the ballots they cast for president, they are really voting for people known as electors. The electors have promised to vote for certain candidates in meetings in their states on December 19.

Each state’s number of electors is based on the total number of its senators and representatives in Congress. Each state has two senators, but the number of representatives in each state is based on the state’s population. That’s why states with large populations, like California and Texas, have the most electors. A candidate needs to win at least 270 of the 538 total electoral votes to become president.

WINNER TAKES ALL

Nearly every state has a winner-take-all rule when it comes to electors. That means that the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state gets all of its electoral votes. In other words, a candidate can get a large number of votes in a state but still not get any of its electoral votes. So if Candidate A wins 44 percent of the popular vote in a state, and Candidate B wins 45 percent of the popular vote, in most cases Candidate B gets all of that state’s electoral votes. The winner-take-all rule can help lead to a candidate winning the popular vote nationwide but losing the electoral vote—and the election.

The losing candidate may also have had big wins in states with large populations, like California. Clinton won that state by about 2.5 million votes. But she lost other states with large populations, like Florida and Pennsylvania, by slim margins. So her total votes now add up to more than Trump’s, but he won the states needed to get at least 270 electoral votes. Even though it’s important to get popular votes, that is not enough to win a presidential election on its own.

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ELECTORAL COLLEGE HISTORY

Candidates have won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College three other times in history, most recently in the 2000 election. That year, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush. The vote was so close in Florida—Bush was ahead by only about 530 votes—that there were recounts of ballots and weeks-long legal battles over more recounts. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled to stop the recounting with Bush still in the lead, and he won the presidency.

Why do we use the Electoral College? The Founding Fathers disagreed about how the president should be chosen. Some leaders wanted Americans to directly elect the president in the popular vote. Others worried that ordinary people weren’t educated or informed enough to vote and suggested Congress should pick the president. The Electoral College was a compromise solution.

To learn more, click here to see our special interactive infographic about the Electoral College.