It seems to have happened again. This makes four.
The American people just voted for president. The candidate who won the largest number of votes — Hillary Clinton, this year — will not become president. As of now, she is more than 200,000 votes ahead of her leading opponent, Donald Trump. But through the weird alchemy of the elector system, Trump will become president.
It happened in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes “won” the election against Samuel Tilden. And in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison “defeated” Grover Cleveland. And in 2000, when George W. Bush “triumphed” over Al Gore.
Why do we put up with this?
The presidential elector system grew out of a stalemate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates couldn’t figure out how to choose the president. Many thought it outrageous to suggest, as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton did, that the president should be chosen by popular vote. As George Mason of Virginia blustered, the people are ill-informed and not to be trusted! You might as well, he added, ask a blind man to choose colors.
So they created the elector system. The voters were to choose wise men (only men, of course) to be electors. Each state would have as many electors as the combined number of senators and representatives it had, and each state could determine how it would choose electors and how the electors would do their business. Because the electors would be wise, they would choose the most qualified person.
The system was ill-considered, unprecedented, and broke down as soon as George Washington retired from public life. Political parties formed, and parties were not going to tolerate having a bunch of self-important people deciding who would be the best candidate. Only the party candidates would be considered. Many states had their state legislatures choose the electors; only after the Civil War did every state allow voters to choose the electors.
At its core, though, the system has a bias. In the patois of the president-elect, it’s rigged. As I explained in an appendix to my first book, The Summer of 1787, by giving each state two electors based on their senators — rather than allocating electors solely on the basis of population — the system gives greater power to small states. A candidate who wins a bunch of small states can gather up a disproportionate total of electors and win the contest while still having fewer overall votes than an opponent.
No one in 1787 intended that result. In 1787, they didn’t expect popular votes even to be tallied. The system has just worked out that way.
As Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, Al Gore, and now Hillary Clinton have experienced.
It’s a ridiculous barnacle on our democracy, the unintended result of decisions made more than two hundred years ago. We have the power to change it by amending the Constitution. It has been proposed many times. That amendment is long overdue.