In a lot of ways, American politics has become more connected to the will of the people over time: In 1913, the political system changed to accommodate the direct election of senators; in the 1912 election parties first began to adopt the primary system to replace “smoke-filled rooms” that nominated presidential candidates. Around the same time, some states began to allow ballot measures and recall elections for public officials. But, despite plenty of grousing, the Electoral College is still kicking. According to the National Archives, there have been more proposed constitutional amendments to change the Electoral College than any other topic (700 proposals in Congress in the last 200 years!). Gallup reports that only about a third of Americans support keeping the institution. And with Hillary Clinton possibly having won the popular vote on Tuesday despite losing to Donald Trump in the Electoral College, Democrats may begin to push for change again. So why is this still the system we have?
Part of the answer is that it’s very difficult to amend the Constitution, requiring an organized, concerted effort to keep the proposed change on the agenda in Congress. The amendment process requires even more than that, though; after a proposed amendment passes in Congress, it has to be approved by three-fourths of the states. (There’s an alternate path to amending the Constitution, but it’s even more arcane.) And enough states are made more influential in the Electoral College that they wouldn’t be on board with a constitutional change.
Another consideration is the conditions under which the Electoral College has reversed the popular vote. It has never changed a clear victory but it has made the difference in several very close elections: 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016.1 If we don’t count 1960, this has only affected Democratic candidates: Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton. So one of America’s two major political parties — the one that will be in power come January — has never really had reason to dump the Electoral College.
Electoral College reversals have also, for the most part, facilitated transitions of power rather than consolidations of it. Although an Electoral College led an incumbent president out of office after the election of 1888, an Electoral College reversal has never kept an incumbent in office.
This isn’t to say that losing the popular vote hasn’t damaged presidential legitimacy in some cases. Rutherford B. Hayes, who beat Samuel Tilden in 1876 but lost the popular vote, served only his promised single term, and was plagued by the nickname “Rutherfraud” that detracted from his political capital. For George W. Bush, it’s hard to know what would have happened had his presidency not been defined early on by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In both of these cases, the elections were settled not only by an Electoral College reversal of the popular vote, but a protracted and complex process. For Hayes in 1876, there was a commission appointed to determine the allocation of contested Southern votes that fell victim to partisan shenanigans. For Bush, we all learned phrases such as “hanging chad” and got familiar with Florida recount laws, and the final call was determined in the Supreme Court. While these processes didn’t exactly reflect well on the Electoral College, they also muddled the story with other electoral complications.
This scattered history hasn’t lent itself to a coherent movement for change. Although Electoral College losers Tilden and Cleveland were near one another in time (and thus may have motivated some to push for change), their Democratic Party was not a party of populist reform. It was a party of bosses and patronage. It was also a party of states’ rights, which the Electoral College was designed in part to protect. The Democratic Party became more reform-minded in the early 20th century and has largely stayed that way, but by then the memory of 1876 and 1888 had faded.
After the 2000 contest, Gore’s concession and acceptance of the process detracted from any energy a possible movement might have had. And, as in the other elections when the Electoral College reversed the popular vote, the election had been close and the winner earned a plurality, not a majority, of the popular vote. If the candidate and party in question had had enough energy and organization behind them to change the Constitution, they probably would have won the election in the first place. Still, combine a Democratic base that’s receptive to populist-style appeals with fresh memories of 2000’s split-vote — who knows.