There were many reasons why the United States’ 2016 elections have been dubbed “controversial” — the mudslinging campaigns, eventual winner Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about women, Hillary Clinton’s email leak, and of course, the shadow of Russian interference.
But here’s one that you might have forgotten about: U.S. President Trump actually received almost three million votes fewer than Clinton.
This amounted to Clinton receiving 2 per cent more votes than her opponent.
So how did Trump then win the election, when he “lost” the popular vote?
Well, the answer to that lies in the confusing and somewhat archaic system used in the U.S. called the Electoral College.
What is the Electoral College even?
In the U.S., voters don’t directly vote for the candidate they want to be president.
In November this year, voters won’t actually be voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
Instead what they’re casting their ballots for are individuals nominated by the candidates as their preferred electors, according to the U.S. National Archives.
These electors — of which there are 538 slots up for grabs across the U.S. — then form the Electoral College, which will meet a month later to vote for the president of the U.S.
Confusing? What you need to know is that voters are actually selecting someone who will represent their preference at a later vote to decide the president.
Winner takes all
As said earlier, there are 538 electors in the Electoral College.
These are distributed amongst all 50 states in the U.S. according to how populous these states are.
Though technically not a state, Washington, D.C. also receives electors.
For example, California — the most populous state — gets a whopping 55 electors, while the least populous state, Wyoming, gets three electors.
These elector positions are then awarded by the states in a winner-takes-all fashion (except for Maine and Nebraska, who do their own thing) once the November presidential votes are counted.
So even though in 2016, Trump only beat Clinton by 1.2 per cent of the vote in Florida, he received the right to select all 29 of the state’s electors.
Altogether, candidates only need a simple majority in the Electoral College to win the election. That means 270 votes or more.
Winning the electoral college but not the popular vote
So that brings us back to our headlining question: How is it possible for Trump to get three million fewer votes than Clinton, but still be elected to the office of commander-in-chief?
That’s best illustrated by the voting results from four states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida.
Altogether these states have 75 electors (29 from Florida, 20 from Pennsylvania, 16 from Michigan, and 10 from Wisconsin).
Trump managed to squeak by to victory in these states, winning by less than 50,000 votes in Pennsylvania, as an example.
In the end, Trump managed to amass 302 electoral college votes, becoming the fifth individual to lose the popular vote but win the presidency.
This disparity between what some might see as the will of people (the popular vote) and the eventual result gave rise to a new wave of criticism for the U.S.’s unique system of democracy, that some have ironically labelled “undemocratic”.
It also brings to light some of the other quirks inherent to the Electoral College.
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While electors have technically been selected by voters to represent their preference when the Electoral College meets to decide the president, they don’t have to.
In fact, they can decide to vote for whoever they feel like voting for.
When an elector votes for someone other than the candidate that won their state, they are dubbed a faithless elector.
This doesn’t happen all too often but it did in 2016 when seven electors cast their ballots for a candidate other than the one who won his or her state.
According to CBS, the state of Washington contributed four faithless electors.
Three of them voted for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is from the Republican Party, and one voted for Democratic Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle, despite Hillary Clinton winning the state.
One of the electors who voted for Colin Powell spoke to The Guardian before the vote to explain the thought process behind her electoral college ballot.
“I expect elected officials to keep their promises and I think it would be wrong not to hold myself to the same standard,” said Levi Guerra, then 19 years of age.
“That means casting my electoral college ballot not for Clinton, who won my state of Washington, but for a compromise Republican candidate who other Republican electors can rally around to stop Trump getting elected.”
According to The Seattle Times, no Republicans electors supported Powell and Guerra was eventually fined US$1,000 (S$1,359.25).
Origin of the Electoral College
So what’s up with this complex system of elections?
Well, the Electoral College was a construct of the 1700s — when the U.S. was founded — and was actually established as a compromise.
According to Fact Check, one big factor was a fear that having a direct vote for president could allow large groups of citizens with common interests would band together and effectively ignore the interests of other citizens, harming the nation as a whole.
Another reason is that back then, news didn’t travel as fast around the vast country and ordinary Americans would have lacked the information to intelligently choose a president.
The point of the Electoral College was then to preserve “the sense of the people” while ensuring the president was elected by those capable of analysing and acting intelligently given the circumstances.
Time also reported that there were more sinister considerations behind the electoral college, connecting the system with the continued exploitation of slaves.
So why still keep this system?
So why, you may ask, does the U.S. persist with this quirky system of deciding its president? Especially now when some of the conditions that gave rise to the Electoral College in the first place have been erased by technology and modern developments.
Proponents of the system’s preservation — such as Hans von Spakovsky, a Senior Legal Fellow from the Heritage Foundation — argue that it has created an “extremely stable government for the last 200 years”.
Some also believe that the Electoral College protects the voice of the smaller, less populous states since presidential candidates can’t win the election by just appealing to populous states such as California or New York.
Yet, critics argue that the system actually thwarts the will of people according to Reuters, as demonstrated by the faithless electors of 2016, it is technically possible for electors to vote whichever they please.
Whatever the case, the electoral college is likely to remain the system of choice in the U.S. for some time to come, as doing away with it will require an amendment to the constitution.
That means that it is possible that 2016's disparity between the popular vote and election winner could very well repeat itself, although according to Politico, it might be harder for Trump to repeat the same feat this time, considering that he has a record in office to defend now, and Clinton's massive unpopularity back then.
Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.
This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".
Top image from Donald Trump's Facebook page