What is the Electoral College, and why did Clinton lose despite possibly winning popular vote?

WASHINGTON — There are few founding institutions in the United States less well-understood than the Electoral College, the somewhat mysterious body of officials who formally elect the nation’s president every four years.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waits to speak during a rally at the Armory November 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waits to speak during a rally at the Armory November 6, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

You thought you would be voting directly for a presidential candidate? “One man, one vote,” as they say? It’s not that simple.

Questions about why the U.S. has an electoral college arose once again Wednesday, after Republican businessman Donald Trump won the presidential race, but former Democratic contender Hillary Clinton maintained her narrow lead in the popular vote.

To be clear: The race is over. Trump surpassed the necessary number of 270 electoral votes to win, and Clinton has conceded.

However, if Clinton wins the popular vote, this will only be the fifth time this has ever happened in the country’s history, according to FactCheck.org. But more on that later.

Where did the Electoral College idea come from?

Instead of setting up a presidential election system through direct democracy, the nation’s founders established the Electoral College in part to ensure the entire nation has a more equal say in the choosing of a national president. In a time when the states were more autonomous and the federal government didn’t have as much power as it does today, the framers wanted to offset the chance that a single populous state or region would put forth a “favorite son” candidate that would almost exclusively represent the contender’s home state and disregard the needs of other parts of the country.

How many members of the Electoral College are there?

Today, there are 538 electors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of electors from each state is equal to the number of congressional seats the state has in the House and Senate. The District of Columbia was granted three electors by the 23rd Amendment, the minimum number. The people who make up the Electoral College are usually comprised of state party officials and generally chosen at the party’s state conventions.

Each party with a candidate on the presidential ballot puts forth a slate of electors. All but two states traditionally award the entire slate of electors to the candidate that receives a majority or plurality of votes. (The two states that do not follow this model, Maine and Nebraska, award two electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote and then candidates receive another vote for each congressional district they win.) Some states require their electors to vote for the candidate who receives the most votes, but even in states where it is not required, Electoral College members rarely depart from the will of the people. The candidate who receives at least 270 Electoral College votes becomes the next president.

What if there’s a tie?

You might have noticed that the total number of electors, 538, is an even number, which could, hypothetically lead to a tie. In this case, the House of Representatives would be called upon to choose the president. This has only happened twice in the nation’s history, when there was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800 and a four-way split in 1824. It is extremely rare.

Can you lose the popular vote and still be elected president? 

The use of an Electoral College system can also mean that a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the election.

This occurred most recently in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore was defeated by Republican George W. Bush despite winning more votes nationwide.

Previous to 2000, this has only happened three other times, and all were in the 1800s,  according to FactCheck.org. These instances included:

  • Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the election to Benjamin Harrison in 1888
  • Samuel Tilden lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes in in 1876
  • Andrew Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams in 1824

Despite losing the presidential election, Hillary Clinton maintains a narrow lead in the popular vote as of Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reports.

Several million votes still need to be counted, but most of the outstanding votes appear to be in Democratic-leaning states. The biggest chunk is in California, but large numbers are also coming out of Washington State, New York, Oregon and Maryland.

Clinton won all those states.

With nearly 125 million votes counted, the AP tally has Clinton with 47.7 percent and President-elect Donald Trump with 47.5 percent.

Clinton did not make history in the way her supporters had hoped, but she is the first woman to ever be nominated on a major party’s ticket, and soon she may join the country’s brief list of those who won the popular vote but came up short of the win that really counts.