Unlike local and state elections where citizens directly elect officials, voters in the United States indirectly elect the President and Vice President by casting ballots for members of the Electoral College. Members of the Electoral College (as determined by Article Two of the Constitution) directly elect the President and Vice President on Election Day. These members are called electors and are typically designated to vote for one particular candidate.
The presidential nomination process is a combination of presidential primaries and caucuses in each state and political party nomination conventions.
The Electoral College was established in Article II, Section I, of the United States Constitution and was later modified by the Twelfth and Twenty-third amendments which clarified the process.
When voters cast ballots for president and vice president, ballots show the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates but voters are actually voting to elect a slate of "electors" that represent their state. The electors from every state combine to form the Electoral College.
Electors are also generally free agents, as only 29 states require electors to vote as they have pledged.
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always two) plus the number of its U.S. House representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each state's population as determined in the census).
Each political party with a candidate on the ballot designates its own set of electors for each state, matching the number of electors they appoint with the number of electoral votes allotted to the state. This usually occurs at state party conventions. Electors are typically strong and loyal supporters of their political party, but can never be a U.S. Senator or Representative.
After the election, by statutes in 48 states and the District of Columbia, the party that wins the most votes in that state appoints all of the electors for that state. This is known as a "winner-take-all" or "unit rule" allocation of electors and it became the norm across the nation by the 1830's. Currently, the only exceptions to the unit rule are in Maine and Nebraska which allocate some of their electors by congressional district.
By federal statute, the electors for each state are required to cast their votes in mid-December, after which the votes are sealed and sent to the president of the U.S. Senate. Though the public votes for the party as a whole, the electors cast individual votes on separate ballots for president and vice president. This has become important in several elections in which electors voted for candidates other than those to whom they were pledged.
On January 6th, following the presidential election year, the president of the U.S. Senate opens all of the sealed envelopes containing the electoral votes and reads them aloud.
To be elected as president or vice president, a candidate must have an absolute majority, or greater than 50%, of the electoral votes for that position. However, a majority is not guaranteed within the Electoral College. An election with no Electoral College majority could occur in two ways:
1) if two candidates split the total of electoral votes evenly (with 538 electoral votes, a tie would mean a split of 269-269), or
2) if three or more candidates receive sufficient electoral votes to deny one candidate a majority.
If no presidential candidate obtains a majority of the electoral votes, the decision is deferred to the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives selects the president, choosing among the top three candidates, and the Senate selects the vice president, choosing between the top two candidates. In the House selection, each state delegation may cast one vote and an absolute majority of states (26) is required to elect the president. (In this situation, Washington, D.C. would lose the voting power given to it by the 23rd Amendment since it does not have the same congressional representation given to the states).
However, a majority winner is not guaranteed in the Congress either. The states could feasibly split their votes equally between 2 candidates (25 state votes each) or the votes could be split between three candidates in such a way that no candidate receives a majority. Additionally, since every state only gets one vote, the representatives from each state must come to a decision on which candidate to support, potentially a challenge if a state has an equal number of representatives supporting two parties.
If a majority is not reached within the House by January 20, the day the president and vice president are sworn in, the newly-elected vice president serves as acting president until the House is able to make a decision. If the vice president has also not yet been selected, the sitting Speaker of the House serves as acting president until the Congress is able to make a decision. If a president has been selected but no vice president has been selected by January 20, the president then appoints the vice president, pending approval by Congress.
There have been only two amendments to the constitution involving the Electoral College. The Twelfth fixes a dangerous flaw, while the Twenty-third grants voting rights to the District of Columbia.
The 12th Amendment was adopted to fix a flaw in the Constitution that had allowed Thomas Jefferson to tie in the Ele3ctoral College with his vide presidential candidate Aaron Burr. The election was then sent to the House of Representatives which required 36 ballots to finally elect Jefferson president. The 12th Amendment specifies that electors shall cast distinct votes for the president and vice president, rather than electoral votes for two candidates. Full text of the 12th Amendment.
The 23rd Amendment gives Washington, D.C. representation in the Electoral College. It was passed by Congress in 1960 and was ratified in 1961 after being approved by three-fourths of the states. Full text of the 23rd Amendment.
Note: This page was last updated by FairVote senior research staff on December 15, 2020. If you have any questions or comments please contact Ashley Houghton at [email protected]
Overwhelmingly, electors in the Electoral College have faithfully voted for their party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees. However, occasionally they do not. Electors who cast a vote for someone other than their party’s nominee are often called “faithless electors.”
Faithless electors have never changed the outcome of a presidential election. To date, only one elector has cast a vote for the opposite party’s nominee instead of his own in a close contest. In 1796, the very first contested presidential election, Samuel Miles, a Federalist elector from Pennsylvania, voted for Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson instead of Federalist candidate John Adams.
Altogether, there have been 23,507 electoral votes counted across 58 presidential elections. Only 90 electors have cast “deviant” votes, not ordinary votes for the presidential nominee of the elector’s political party. Only one elector has ever voted for their nominee’s opponent. More than two-thirds of deviant votes (63) were due to the death of the party's nominee. Of the remaining 27 deviant votes, 24 were cast for another candidate, 3 of which were cancelled or retracted due to the operation of state law; and only one cast for the opposite party’s nominee in a close election. The final three deviant votes consist of one abstention, one abnormal vote (switching the presidential and vice presidential nominees) and one apparent accident.
There have also been 75 incidents of electors casting faithful votes for president but casting some sort of deviant vote for vice president. No such incident has ever changed the outcome for vice president. These are described more fully below. Many, but not all, of the electors who cast deviant votes for president also cast deviant votes for vice president. Combining these shows that a total of 165 electors have cast deviant votes of some sort, either for either president or vice president or both.
We have also identified a few instances of electors failing to vote due to illness but these are not intentional abstentions and they would be substituted with replacement electors under modern elections, so they are not included in the totals at all though they are mentioned in the narratives below where the records are sufficiently clear.
Some states have passed legislation requiring electors to pledge to vote for their party’s nominee. Such legislation was upheld by the Supreme Court in Chiafalo v. Washington, which held that states may require pledges and penalize deviant votes, including by canceling deviant votes entirely.
Here are the names, dates, and stories of the 90 deviant votes for president and the 75 deviant votes for vice president:
Although it did not impact the outcome, the 2016 election between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton included an abnormally high number of electors breaking with their political party and casting a deviant vote for President. The Democratic electors were David Bright (ME - Bernie Sanders), Muhammad Abdurrahman (MN - Bernie Sanders), Micheal Baca (CO - John Kasich), Esther John (WA - Colin Powell), Levi Guerra (WA - Colin Powell), Bret Chiafalo (WA - Colin Powell), Robert Satiacum (WA - Faith Spotted Eagle), and David Mulinix (HI - Bernie Sanders). The two Republican electors were Chris Suprun (TX - John Kasich) and Bill Greene (TX - Ron Paul). Additionally, one Texas Republican elector, Art Sisneros, withdrew after Election Day but prior to the vote of the electors and was replaced. Seven of these electors also voted for a different candidate for vice president than their party’s nominee.
The two electors from Minnesota and Colorado were replaced following their deviant votes, so their votes were not reported in the final count. The elector from Maine was ruled out of order and switched his vote back to Clinton/Kaine, so his original deviant vote was also not reported in the final count. A total of 7 votes were counted for candidates other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so rather than the expected outcome of Trump 306 to Clinton 232, the final tally was Trump 304, Clinton 227, Others 7.
An unknown elector from Minnesota, pledged to vote for Democrat John Kerry, cast a presidential vote instead for Kerry’s running mate John Edwards (the elector also cast his or her vice presidential vote for Edwards). One Minnesota elector, who believed the Edwards vote must have been a mistake, said, "I'm certainly glad the Electoral College isn't separated by one vote."
Barbara Lett-Simmons, a Democratic elector from the District of Columbia, did not cast her vote in order to protest the lack of congressional representation for Washington, DC. Lett-Simmons was the first elector to abstain from voting since 1832. Her abstention did not affect the outcome of the election.
Margaret Leach, a nurse from Huntington, WV, was pledged to the Democratic Party. During the Electoral College process, Leach learned that members of the Electoral College were not required to vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged, whereupon she decided to draw more attention to the situation by switching her votes for president and vice president. She cast her presidential vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, and cast her vice presidential vote for Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate.
Leach tried to get other electors to join her, but hers remained the only deviant vote.
Mike Padden, a lawyer from Spokane, WA, was pledged to vote for Gerald Ford, the 1976 Republican candidate for president. Instead Padden voted for Ronald Reagan, who had run in the Republican primary and lost. For vice president he voted for Robert Dole, Gerald Ford's running mate.
Roger L. MacBride was pledged to the Republican party of Virginia. However, in the 1972 election, MacBride did not cast his electoral vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, but for John Hospers, the Libertarian presidential candidate.
He also cast his vice presidential vote for Toni Nathan, the Libertarian vice presidential candidate, (making Nathan the first woman to receive an electoral vote). MacBride ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in the next election but did not receive any electoral votes.
Dr. Lloyd W. Bailey was an elector for the Republican Party of North Carolina. He did not vote for Richard Nixon however, but for George Wallace, the presidential candidate for the American Independence Party. (Wallace received a total of 46 electoral votes).
Bailey claimed that Nixon had done some things that displeased him (like appointing Henry Kissinger and Daniel Moynihan) and so he decided not to vote for him. He also protested that he had never signed a pledge promising to vote for any particular candidate and that his vote for Wallace was justified because Wallace was the winner in Bailey’s district.
Bailey later admitted at a Senate hearing that he would have voted for Richard Nixon if his vote would have altered the outcome of the election.
Henry D. Irwin, a Republican elector from Oklahoma, was originally pledged to Richard Nixon. Irwin later admitted in an interview with CBS that he "could not stomach" Nixon. He tried to convince the Democratic and Republican electors to reject both Kennedy and Nixon as presidential candidates. His choice replacement was a combination of two conservative senators: Harry F. Byrd of Virginia and Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In fact, he sent out telegrams to the other electors.
One telegram sent to the 218 Republican electors read:
"I am Oklahoma Republican elector. The Republican electors cannot deny the election to Kennedy. Sufficient conservative Democratic electors available to deny labor Socialist nominee. Would you consider Byrd President, Goldwater Vice President, or wire any acceptable substitute. All replies strict confidence."
Irwin received several replies (about 40) from other electors but he was the only one to vote against his designated party. He cast his electoral votes for Byrd and Goldwater.
In the same election 14 unpledged electors (eight from Mississippi and six from Alabama) cast their presidential votes for Harry Byrd. All 14 also voted for Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as vice president. These were not faithless electors, though, as they had been elected as unpledged electors and were free to vote as they chose.
W.F. Turner, a Democratic elector from Alabama, voted for Walter Burgwyn Jones instead of the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. Jones was formerly a circuit court judge from Turner’s hometown. He also voted for U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge for Vice President instead of Stevenson’s running mate, Estes Kefauver.
Preston Parks was a member of Tennessee’s Democratic Party. He was appointed as one of their state electors early in the election year. Before the election, members of the Democratic Party split off and formed the States Rights party.
Parks stated before the election that he would not vote for Harry Truman, his party’s nominee, but would instead vote for Senator Strom Thurmond, the States Rights Party candidate. Another elector also made the same pledge but ended up voting for Truman. Parks also voted for Thurmond’s running mate, Fielding L. Wright, for Vice President.
Thurmond, who gathered less than 3% of the popular vote, received a total of 39 electoral votes. The other 38 electors were not faithless electors, but were earned by virtue of Thurmond winning Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
In 1912, Republican vice presidential candidate James S. Sherman died before the election. He was President William Howard Taft's vice president and they were both running for re-election.
Eight Republican electors voted for Nicholas Murray Butler instead. There were no deviant votes cast for president in 1912.
In 1896, two parties, the Democratic Party and the People’s Party, ran William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate. The two parties, though they shared a presidential candidate, nominated different candidates for vice president. The Democratic Party nominated Arthur Sewall and the People’s Party nominated Thomas Watson.
The People’s Party won 31 electoral votes. All 31 voted for Bryan for president, but four voted for the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sewall, for vice president.
The Democratic Party nominated Horace Greeley for President in 1872. He won enough states to earn 66 electors. However, Greeley died after the November election but before the Electoral College had cast their votes. Only 3 of his electors voted for him, and Congress did not count those three votes. Of the remaining 63, 42 voted for Independent-Democrat Thomas Hendricks, 18 voted for Greeley's running mate, B. Gratz Brown, two voted for Democrat Charles Jenkins, and one voted for Democrat David Davis. Because they did not vote for their party’s nominee, their votes are considered deviant votes, but they are not faithless electors, because voting for their nominee was not meaningful an option.
The Democratic Party nominated Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky as their vice presidential candidate. The 23 electors from Virginia refused to support Johnson with their votes upon learning of the allegation that he had lived with an African American woman.
With these 23 votes missing, there was no majority in the Electoral College and the decision was deferred to the Senate. In the end, the Senate voted for Johnson as the vice president.
All 30 electors from Pennsylvania refused to support the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, voting instead for William Wilkins. Despite the loss of the 30 votes from Pennsylvania, Martin Van Buren was elected as the vice president. Andrew Jackson was elected as the president, receiving over 75% of the electoral votes.
Additionally, two National Republican electors did not vote due to illness.
In this election, seven out of the nine electors from Georgia refused to vote for vice presidential candidate John Calhoun. All seven cast their vice presidential votes for William Smith instead. Andrew Jackson won the election, with John Calhoun as his vice president.
William Plummer, Sr. was pledged to vote for Democratic-Republican candidate James Monroe. Instead, he cast his vote for John Quincy Adams, also of the Democratic-Republican Party, although Adams was not a candidate in the 1820 election.
The election of 1820 was the last uncontested election for President in United States history, and Plummer did not feel that the Electoral College should unanimously elect any president other than George Washington. Plummer’s vote for Adams was the only vote not cast for Monroe.
In 1820, there was also a dispute as to the validity of Missouri's three electoral votes, due to an underlying dispute regarding when Missouri achieved full statehood, leading to inconsistent reports as to the total number of electoral votes cast. However, the Missouri votes were not faithless electors.
Three electors of the Federalist Party refused to cast their votes for Federalist vice presidential candidate Jared Ingersoll. All three voted instead for Elbridge Gerry, the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party.
Six electors from the Democratic-Republican Party refused to support James Madison, their party’s candidate for president. Instead, they voted for George Clinton, the Democratic-Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate, for president.
Additionally, one Democratic-Republican elector from Kentucky failed to vote at all, because he was sick.
Samuel Miles, of Pennsylvania, was the first elector to break a pledge to vote for a specific candidate. Miles had promised to vote for Federalist candidate John Adams, but instead cast a ballot for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
While Miles did not affect the outcome of the election—Jefferson still lost by three electoral votes—his decision still earns him a dubious spot in history. A letter, published in the Gazette of the United States, expressed the attitude toward faithless electors that would persist as the dominant viewpoint: "What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be president? No! I choose him to act, not to think."
Note: This page was last updated by FairVote senior research staff on July 7, 2020. If you have any questions or comments please contact Ashley Houghton at [email protected]
There are 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require electors to vote for a pledged candidate. Most of those (16 plus DC) nonetheless do not provide for any penalty or any mechanism to prevent the deviant vote from counting as cast. Five states provide a penalty of some sort for a deviant vote, and 14 states provide for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced (two states do both). The constitutionality of these laws was upheld by the Supreme Court in Chiafalo v. Washington on July 6, 2020.
The Uniform Law Commission has drafted and recommended a law called the Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act that provides for electors to pledge to vote for a candidate, and for them to be replaced with an alternate in the event that they do not vote as pledged. As of October 2019, that Act has been adopted by Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and Washington.
The rules of the Electoral College are not set in stone. While Constitutional amendments are rare, they do happen. Twenty-seven proposals have survived the difficult amendment process, and with much less popular approval than the movement for direct election. Over the history of our country, there have been at least 700 proposed amendments to modify or abolish the Electoral College - more than any other subject of Constitutional reform.
Here are just a few examples of past reform attempts:
1950: The Lodge-Gossett Amendment, named for its co-sponsors Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) and Rep. Ed Gossett (D-TX), was a classic example of a reform plan known as proportional allocation. The plan was introduced in the 81st Congress (1949-1950) as an amendment proposal that would abolish the Electoral College as it was known, replacing it with a proportional electoral vote.
In this case, electors and the college would remain in place, but electoral votes would be allocated to presidential tickets in a manner directly proportional to the popular votes each ticket received in the states. The proposal was amended in the Senate to also require a 40% threshold of electoral votes for a ticket to be elected to the Presidency and Vice Presidency. If no one received such a threshold, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in a joint session, would then choose among the top two presidential candidates and their running mates.
The Lodge-Gossett Amendment passed the Senate with a super majority by a vote of 64-27, but died a bitter death in the House.
1956: Hubert Humphrey's (D-MN) S. J. 152 was a new, unique proposal of reform introduced in the 84th Congress. In this plan, the Electoral College would be abolished as known, but the then 531 electoral votes would still be put to use. Two electoral votes would be awarded to the candidate winning the overall popular vote in each of the then 48 states. The remaining 435 would then be divided nationally in proportion to the nationwide popular vote. The proposal passed the House of Representatives, but later died in the Senate.
1966: Delaware filed a lawsuit against New York, arguing that its "winner-take-all" system for awarding electoral college votes effectively disenfranchised small states in the presidential election process. The Supreme Court, under whose original jurisdiction the case was filed, refused to hear it. However, Delaware's action generated support from several other states and 11 more joined in the lawsuit: Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
See these documents from the case:
1969: This proposal came to be after the 1968 Presidential election, in which American Independent candidate George Wallace managed to obtain 46 electoral votes, generating concern over the possibilities of contingent elections and electoral vote-trading for political concessions. In the 91st Congress, Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY) introduced the proposal, which would abolish the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular election with a 40% threshold and a runoff if no threshold was achieved. The bill was wildly popular in the House, passing 338-70, yet failed to pass in the Senate due to a filibuster.
1979: After the close election between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) introduced a proposal in the 96th Congress to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with direct election. The measure failed the Senate by a vote of 51-48 in 1979. Because of its failure in that chamber, the House decided not to vote on its version of the proposal.
1992 & 1997: Hearings were conducted to consider reform possibilities, but no proposal left the committee chamber.
2004: Colorado proposes, by ballot measure 36, to amend the way it allocates its electoral votes. Instead of remaining a winner-take-all state, the proposal, if passed, would have changed the state to proportional allocation.
See related editorials on the Colorado attempt:
2004: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) introduces a proposal for Electoral College reform. HJR 109 proposes a majority direct election of president, and is currently residing in the House Judiciary Committee.
*Only two proposals involving the Electoral College have ever reached the ratification stage, and both passed (the 12th and 23rd Amendments).
In the 1800 presidential election, the Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr on their ballot. Jefferson and Burr won a clear majority of the national vote. All 73 Democratic-Republican members of the Electoral College voted faithfully, casting two votes each, one for Jefferson and one for Burr.
Before the 12th Amendment, electors cast two votes for their party without specifying one as being for the president and the other for the vice president. Because of this, Jefferson and Burr received exactly the same number of electoral votes and the election was a tie.
Since there was no majority within the Electoral College, the decision was deferred to the House of Representatives, then controlled by the Federalist Party. Though Jefferson was clearly the Democratic-Republican's candidate for president, the Federalist Party considered Burr to be less of an evil than Jefferson. They tried to rally support for Burr in place of Jefferson. Burr also refused to endorse Jefferson.
The House had difficulty coming to a majority and cast 36 separate votes within one week. Though the original election was in November, the final House vote, electing Jefferson as president, did not occur until February 7, 1800. Aaron Burr was appointed as vice president.
This election prompted the passing of the 12th Amendment which introduced double balloting. The Electoral College now casts two separate votes, one for president and one for vice president.
This was the first election in which the winner of the popular vote did not become the president.
Andrew Jackson won a slight plurality in the popular vote, leading John Quincy Adams by 38,149 votes. Four candidates received electoral votes, though none received enough to constitute a majority:
Andrew Jackson received 99 electoral votes.
John Quincy Adams received 84 electoral votes.
William H. Crawford received 41 electoral votes.
Henry Clay received 37 electoral votes.
Since there was no majority within the Electoral College, the decision was deferred to the House of Representatives. The House is only allowed to vote on the top three contenders from the Electoral College so Henry Clay was removed from the election.
Adams, who was Jackson's most viable competition, sought Clay's support, knowing it would bring him victory. As the vote neared, Clay worked hard rounding up support for Adams. He won over western representatives whose states had voted solidly for Jackson and even promised the votes of his home state Kentucky, which had not cast a single popular vote for Adams. After more than a month of bargaining, John Quincy Adams took precisely the 13 states he needed to win, Jackson won seven, and Crawford won four.
When Adams became president, he appointed Henry Clay as secretary of state. Many have suspected that the promise of the position was why Clay agreed to support Adams.
Jackson called the whole situation a "corrupt bargain" and spent the next four years campaigning on how the election was stolen from him.
Though Jackson did win the popular vote in 1824, not all states recorded a popular vote. In six of the 24 existing states, the Electoral College members were appointed by the state legislature. These six states (NY, SC, GA, VT, LA, DE) comprised nearly 25% of the electorate.
The number of voters for each electoral vote also varied considerably. There were more voters in Indiana, which carried 5 electoral votes, than there were in Virginia, which carried 24 electoral votes. More than three times as many people voted in Ohio than in Virginia, yet Ohio only cast 16 electoral votes.
Some states were won with very high percentages; Jackson carried 98% of Tennessee's popular vote, Adams carried 94% of New Hampshire's vote. Neither candidate had national appeal and both were absent on the ballot in at least one state.
Despite these variations in representation, Jackson's 4-year campaign highlighting the unfairness was successful. He won the presidency in 1828, presenting himself as a man of the people, not the government.
In the 1836 election, the Democratic-Republicans' presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.
His main competition was the Whig Party. The Whigs hoped to expose the design of the Electoral College by running several different candidates in different areas, picking individuals with a great deal of regional appeal.
The Whigs hoped to win a party majority throughout the country with this method, which would then allow them to choose the individual they wished to become president.
They were unsuccessful and Van Buren won the election with nearly 60% of the electoral votes, though his popular vote total was just over 50%. His running mate, Richard M. Johnson, did not fare so well. Upon hearing the allegation that Johnson had children with an African American woman, the 23 Democratic-Republican electors of Virginia refused to give him their votes.
Without those 23 votes, Johnson did not receive a majority vote within the Electoral College. The decision was deferred to the Senate where Johnson was finally elected by a majority vote as the new vice president.
Horace Greeley established the Liberal Republicans (or Democrats) in protest of incumbent Ulysses S Grant. Greeley ran against Grant in the 1872 presidential election.
Though few took Greeley seriously at first, he gained support throughout the campaign and eventually gathered 40% of the popular vote, only 800,000 less than Grant.
Greeley received a total of 2.8 million votes and would have received 86 electoral votes had he not died on November 29, after the general election but before the Electoral College convened to cast their votes.
With no precedent to guide them, Greeley's electors split the 84 votes among four minor candidates. Grant had already won an absolute majority of the electoral votes so the result of the election was not affected. However, history was slightly skewed because Grant is credited with defeating Greeley, 286-0.
One of the most controversial presidential elections was between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote by nearly 250,000 votes, over 3%. On the night of the election, both candidates, as well as most of the national media, assumed Tilden was the winner. However, some Republicans were not willing to give up so easily.
The candidate's electoral votes were close and the Republicans contested 20 of them, including 4 from Florida, 8 from Louisiana, 7 from South Carolina, and 1 from Oregon.
Out of these 20 electoral votes, Tilden only needed 1 to win the election. Hayes needed all 20.
Without any precedent for the many contested electoral votes, both parties agreed to set up a 15-person commission to study the contested votes and to impartially decide whom each vote should go to.
The commission was made up of five senators, five members of Congress, and five Supreme Court Justices. It was originally set up to include seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent who was expected to be unbiased and nonpartisan.
At this time, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House. Both parties agreed that the findings of the commission would be upheld unless overruled by both the House and the Senate.
When the independent who was supposed to serve on the commission was elected as a senator, he resigned his position on the commission and was replaced by a Republican. The commission now had eight Republicans and seven Democrats.
Over a series of discussions, the commission voted along party lines and awarded all 20 votes to Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate. Each vote was 8-7, with the Republican majority controlling the decision. Every decision of the commission was contested by the Democratic House but was upheld by the Republican Senate.
The Democrats threatened to filibuster but eventually agreed to a resolution that Hayes would withdraw federal troops from the South, ending reconstruction and the enforcement of equal voting rights for blacks.
This election was clearly corrupted and has found a place in every debate over the Electoral College since.
For a more complete analysis and timeline of the 1876 election, see the special website designed by Harper's Weekly.
1888 was another election in which the winner of the popular vote did not become president.
Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland had won the popular vote by a margin of 0.8% (90,596 out of 11,383,320 votes). Despite this slim popular victory, Republican Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College majority (233 out of 401 votes).
Harrison won the Electoral College without the popular vote by winning slim majorities in his winning states and suffering considerable losses in his losing states. Six southern states favored Cleveland by more than 65%.
The reason for this split was the issue of tariffs. The South strongly favored lowering of the tariff. The Republicans approved of high tariffs and were unpopular in the South. Tariff reform gave Cleveland immense support in the southern states, but the South alone was not enough to win the election.
When elected in 1884, Cleveland was the first Democrat elected since before the Civil War. He came back to challenge and defeat Harrison in 1892.
In the 2000 Presidential Election, the Democratic nominee, Al Gore held a slim popular vote victory of 543,895 (0.5%), yet the Republican nominee, George W. Bush won the Electoral College 271-266, with one Gore elector abstaining.
The election was plagued with allegations of voter fraud and disenfranchisement. Rumors of illegal road blocks, unclear ballots, and uncounted votes, particularly in swing states like Missouri and Florida, were rampant.
Florida became the key state as the election drew to a close. Consisting of nearly 6 million voters, Florida was officially won by a margin of 537 votes, after a process of recounting the votes and a Supreme Court ruling.
Voters complained about confusing ballots and many Florida voters believed that they accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan, a conservative running on the Reform ticket, when they meant to vote for Al Gore.
Another significant candidate in the 2000 election was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Nader attracted just under 3% of voters with a progressive platform focused on social and environmental issues.
Democratic supporters targeted Nader as being a "spoiler" for Al Gore. Since Nader was left-of-center, Democrats argued that most of his voters would have otherwise supported Gore. In such a close election, many believe that Gore would have won if Nader had dropped out of the race.
The 2000 election resulted in numerous court battles over contested ballots and recounts. These lawsuits escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court where the final, 5-4 decision was made, ending the recounts and giving the state of Florida's electoral votes to George W. Bush.
In the end, Gore conceded the election publicly, though he did not hide his displeasure at the Supreme Court's ruling.
The 2016 presidential election was the most recent election in which the national popular vote winner lost to the candidate who placed second in total votes. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the first woman to earn the presidential nomination of a major political party, led in the national popular vote with 65,853,514 votes to Republican nominee Donald Trump's 62,984,828 votes, a lead of just under 3 million votes amounting to about 2% of the votes cast. However, Trump received 304 electoral votes to Clinton's 227, with seven electors voting for other candidates entirely.
The result surprised polling experts and pundits. Prior to election day, nearly every media source had predicted that Clinton would win. One polling expert even swore to "eat a bug" if Donald Trump earned more than 240 electoral votes, which he subsequently did live on CNN.
Donald Trump was perceived as an abnormal presidential candidate, becoming the first president elected who had never served in any elected office or in the military. Trump had earned the Republican nomination without a majority of the votes of Republicans in primary elections, having benefited from a voter base split between the more mainstream candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Senators from Florida and Texas respectively. Upon winning, Donald Trump became the person with the lowest approval rating ever elected president.
The general election was perceived to be intensely negative, with both major party nominees having record low approval scores. It was also noted for a systematic disinformation campaign conducted by foreign agents, particularly associated with Russia. Russian agents also interfered with the electoral process through illegal technological means, including by hacking into voter registration databases and servers operated by the Democratic Party, although there is no evidence that they breached any actual voting systems or were able to change any votes.
Following Election Day, there were campaigns to encourage presidential electors pledged to vote for Donald Trump to instead vote for other candidates. In fact, two Texas electors did refuse to vote for Trump, with a third withdrawing after Election Day but before the electoral vote rather than vote for Trump. An additional eight electors pledged to vote for Clinton voted for other candidates instead, though only five were counted, with the other three being replaced by electors who voted for Clinton.
The election was particularly close in three states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three states with less than 50% of the votes cast, and with a smaller margin than the number of votes cast for third party candidates Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green). Stein used her position as a ballot-qualified presidential candidate to call for a recount in all three states. Wisconsin is the only state that actually conducted a full recount (with no significant change in result); one began in Michigan but was halted by the courts; and the recount in Pennsylvania never even began, as the Stein campaign was unable to produce the required $1 million bond.
The Presidential Tracker provides information on where the candidates hold campaign events between party conventions and election day. As is to be expected, there is a marked focus on swing states. In 2020, 96% of campaign events were held in just 12 "swing states".
This page examines the history of contested conventions and brokered conventions*. FairVote tracks contested conventions because their multiple rounds of voting are an interesting parallel with ranked choice voting. Multi-round nomination processes are more likely to identify a consensus nominee, which helps a party put its best foot forward during the general election. While contested conventions are rare in the modern era, ranked choice voting in primary elections would restore the benefits of multi-round voting.
Party conventions began in the mid-1800s as a way to formalize nominations for president and vice president. Democratic conventions have been held since 1832 and Republican conventions since 1856. Since that time, only 26 conventions have been brokered or contested. Most contested conventions were held prior to 1936, when Democrats still used the “two-thirds rule” which mandated that the nominee receive two-thirds of the vote. Since 1936, both parties have operated under a simple majority rule and there have been only five contested conventions in that time.
Below is a list of all contested conventions in U.S. history.
A spreadsheet with this information can be found here.
Current as of 8/1/2021.
*Terminology note: “Contested convention” and “brokered convention” typically have slightly different meanings. This page will use the term “contested convention” to refer to both.