U.S.

Extraordinary Moments in Electoral College History

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Activists demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside of the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, ahead of the Electoral College meetings on Monday. Mohammad Khursheed/Reuters

The U.S. Electoral College is expected to formalize the election of Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence as the next president and vice president of the United States on Monday, nearly six weeks after the pair faced off against Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine in the general election. But with Electoral College meetings underway in statehouses across the country, protesters in every state and the District of Columbia are lined up outside of the capitol buildings to oppose Trump’s election as the 45th president.

Related: How to fix the Electoral College system

On November 8, Trump won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote to Clinton by a wide margin. Since then, more than 4.9 million Americans have signed a petition urging the Electoral College electors to vote against Trump on the strength of the popular vote. At least one elector, Christopher Suprun of Texas, has vowed not to cast his vote for Trump on Monday, writing in a New York Times op-ed that the billionaire businessman “shows daily he is not qualified for the office.” And despite his promise to back Trump, elector Michael Banerian of Michigan has claimed he received death threats and an overwhelming number of letters and messages on Facebook since the election.

Without offering evidence to back up his claim, Trump has said he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal voters hadn’t cast ballots for his Democratic opponent. But according to the Times, officials across the country haven’t found any notable evidence of voter fraud. Prior to the election, meanwhile, Trump promised to challenge the results if he lost the electoral vote.

The Electoral College meetings typically are not much more than a formality in the monthslong presidential election process. But there have been a few less-than-perfect circumstances facing the Electoral College, which was conceived as a compromise between those who favored Congress choosing the president and those who wanted direct elections by the American people. Here’s a look at a few of those other notable moments.

1800

The 12th Amendment requires each elector to cast one vote for president and another for vice president. But before it was ratified, electors cast two votes for their party without specifying which was designated for president and which for vice president. Thus, Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both received exactly the same number of electoral votes in the 1800 election. Because of the tie, the electors deferred their decision to the House of Representatives, which eventually sealed Jefferson’s win as president and Burr’s as vice president.

The 12th Amendment, which was first applied to the 1804 election, was meant to rectify that flaw.

1824

In the 1824 election, the Republican Party broke apart. None of the four candidates—Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford or Henry Clay—received enough of the electoral votes to constitute a majority. Adhering to the 12th Amendment, Congress deferred the decision to the House. As the fourth-place contender, Clay was disqualified because the amendment only allows the three candidates who earned the most popular votes to be considered in the House.

Weeks later, the House chose Adams as president, and he appointed Clay to secretary of state. Jackson and his followers deemed the move a corrupt bargain.

1836

In the 1836 election, Democrat Martin Van Buren defeated several Whig Party candidates led by William Henry Harrison. But during the Electoral College process, Virginia’s delegation defied the state’s popular vote by refusing to confirm Vice President–elect Richard Johnson—because he lived openly with a black woman. The vote went to Congress, which ultimately installed Johnson in the vice presidency.

1876

Democrat Samuel Tilden defeated his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes, by about 250,000 ballots. But there were two sets of results from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina because the Democratic and Republican parties there each sent their own conflicting ballot results to Washington, D.C., according to the History Channel. But Hayes ultimately captured the presidency when he won the Electoral College by just one vote.

2000

Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote by a slim margin of about half a million ballots in the 2000 election, but Republican nominee George W. Bush claimed the Electoral College vote. Gore conceded to Bush on election night but later retracted his statement when he learned that the vote in Florida was too close to call. There was a recount in the Sunshine State, and Gore lost by just a few hundred votes. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that recount unconstitutional, but Bush ultimately won with 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266, becoming just the fourth president to move into the White House despite losing the popular vote, according to the History Channel.

So What Is the Electoral College, Anyway?

When Americans cast ballots in the general election every four years, they actually are voting for a slate of presidential electors, who as a group are known as the Electoral College. These individuals, who are generally chosen by state parties, pledge to officially nominate the next president. (Former President Bill Clinton was among the 29 New York electors who cast his ballot for his wife, the 2016 Democratic nominee, inside the Albany Capitol on Monday, according to local news.)

The number of electors for each state is equal to its combined number of senators and representatives in Congress. For example, Colorado has two senators and seven House members, so the state has nine total electoral votes. On Monday, these 538 Americans—representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia—are meeting at their capitals to cast ballots and formalize Trump’s win. After the election, the winning candidate typically earns all of a state’s electors. The Constitution doesn’t bar individual electors from changing their minds, even if they have pledged to vote for a particular candidate.

Ahead of the Republican National Convention in July, a coalition of individuals and groups urged delegates to “vote their conscience” and to be unbound from selecting Trump as the party’s 2016 nominee, despite his overall victory during the primary season. Their effort failed.

A candidate must receive at least 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency. Trump won 306 electors, compared with Clinton’s 232. Monday’s votes aren’t expected to change the outcome of the election, but if a candidate doesn’t reach 270 votes, the decision goes to the House, which currently is controlled by Republicans.

Over the years, there have been multiple unsuccessful efforts to abolish the Electoral College, which President Barack Obama just last week seemed to suggest is outdated when he called it a “vestige” and “carryover” from an earlier form of the U.S. government.

When Is the Vote Final?

Members of the House and Senate will meet for a joint session of Congress to open and count the Electoral College ballots on January 6, two weeks before Inauguration Day. As the departing Senate president, Vice President Joe Biden is expected to preside over that count and declare the winner.

This tradition has provided some awkward moments in U.S. history. In 2001, Gore, who as the vice president also acted as Senate president, had to officially announce his own loss to Bush.

What Else Is Happening in 2016?

This year’s Electoral College meetings take place amid allegations that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the election. Some electors called for an intelligence briefing prior to voting but were rebuffed. Trump and his team have dismissed the claims.

What’s New With Trump?

As a private citizen in 2012, Trump tweeted that the Electoral College “is a disaster for democracy.” Now, as president-elect, he presumably is counting on those electors to confirm his nomination. 

Since the election, he has been busy filling his Cabinet with almost daily nominations. Those decisions are expected to slow this week as he prepares to celebrate Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. If he is officially elected to the presidency, his final step toward the White House will be his inauguration on January 20.

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