This is just as important as having a president who is equally representative of the interests of each state. The Founding Fathers succeeded admirably in the area of state-based election of the president, but did they succeed in also ensuring we have a democratically elected president? Are public presidential elections really shams, leaving us with a president who is essentially appointed by political party favorites, or does he represent the American people as well as the states? If he does not represent the American people, should the Electoral College be changed, or abolished entirely, or should it be kept as it is, with the assumption that a president that is representative of the interests of the states is more beneficial to this nation and appropriate to the office than one who is truly democratically elected?
To answer these questions, it is first necessary to examine the results of the presidential elections of the past, going back to the very first one and every one since. The electoral vote as compared to the popular vote must be examined. Did a presidential candidate ever win the presidency through an electoral vote that did not match up with the popular vote? In other words, has a president ever been elected who did not get the majority of the popular vote, but who won the office through the electoral vote alone? And if this has happened, how many times has it happened? Has it happened enough times to make the current method of electing the president un-democratic, or has it happened only a handful of times in what can be considered rare, if not purely statistical flukes of circumstances?
It would seem that in the long history of the United States, with its 45 presidents and many more presidential elections (counting the elections for presidents who served more than one term), that it would be inevitable that at least one election may come out in favor of the Electoral College alone, while leaving the popular vote, and with it, the will of the American people, out in the cold. Happening once would be an expected and acceptable outcome for an institution that was otherwise mainly democratic in nature. However, many instances of this would indicate something was wrong with the way the Electoral College operates and that it needs to be overhauled or abolished in order to give us a truly democratic federal government.
In the history of the United States, there have been three candidates who have won the presidency without winning the popular vote. These candidates were elected on the strength of their electoral votes alone. With our current roster of 50 states, we have 538 electoral votes up for grabs, and a candidate needs just 270 of them to win. In the past, when there were fewer states, the numbers were different, but it still took a majority in the Electoral College to elect a president (Wright 2009). The candidates who became president without winning the popular vote were:
1. Rutherford B. Hayes, elected in 1876. He had 4,036,298 popular votes, while his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, had 4,300,590 popular votes. But getting more popular votes among the people didn't matter for Tilden, as Hayes won a majority of electoral votes, making him president of the United States.
2. Benjamin Harrison, elected in 1888. He had 5,439,853 popular votes, compared to his opponent, Grover Cleveland, who had 5,540,309 popular votes. Harrison won the Electoral College, though, and became president. It wasn't really a big loss for Cleveland, however, since he had been president just before Harrison was elected, and he was elected president again immediately after Harrison (with Harrison just serving one term), making Cleveland the only president in U.S. history to serve two non-consecutive terms.
3. George W. Bush, elected in 2000 to his first term as president, only had 50,456,002 popular votes, compared to his opponent Al Gore, who had 50,999, 897 popular votes. Bush became president anyway, by winning the electoral vote in what was one of the most contested presidential elections in history.
John Quincy Adams is an anomaly in presidential history, having been appointed to the office by the House of Representatives after losing the popular vote by 44,804 votes to Andrew Jackson in 1824, and then tying with Jackson in the electoral vote. According to the Constitution, in the case of an electoral tie, the House of Representatives will appoint the president. This is the only time this has happened in the history of American presidential politics.
In all other cases, the president who was elected by the electoral college also won the popular vote of the American people. In the three cases (four, if you count Adams) in which this did not happen, the number of popular votes each candidate received were so close to each other as to make whoever won the election practically a popularly chosen candidate of the people. While it is technically possible for a candidate to receive not a single vote in certain states and still win the election based on electoral votes, this has never happened, and its likelihood is very small (Wright 2009). Imagine a candidate not getting even one vote in any given state. It could happen, but probably won't, due to simple statistical probability.
The analysis of past presidential elections clearly shows that the Electoral College has thus far promoted the election of presidents who are popularly elected by the American people, and in the few cases where it has not, those candidates have been almost tied in popular votes. Therefore, the Electoral College does serve its dual purpose of ensuring a president who is elected by both the states and the people, and does not need to be altered at this time.
Barnett, Arnold. 1990. "Selecting the Nation's CEO: A Risk Assessment of the Electoral College." Journal of Managerial Issues 2(4): 357-370.
Fon, Vincy. 2004. "Electoral College Alternatives and U.S. Presidential Elections." Supreme Court Economic Review 12(1): 41-73.