On November 7, 2000, American’s waited through the night for their new President-elect to take the podium and his opponent to concede.  As major networks sporadically called the presidential race—first projecting victory for then Vice-President Al Gore, afterward for incumbent Texas Governor George W. Bush, and finally deciding the election too close to call—many of those who resisted weighty eyelids, attempting to witness the future of their country, were confused; after all, Mr. Gore, having tallied nearly 51 million votes, won the popular vote by more than 500,000: why was he not the President-elect?

Unfortunately for Mr. Gore, the United States relies on an electoral college to decide the president, which means finding the winner is not as simple as counting up the total votes for each candidate.  The U.S. Electoral College works like this: when people go to the polls and vote for their favorite candidate, they are voting for their candidate to win the backing of their state.  Whoever garners the most votes in the state—no matter if they get a plurality, a small majority, or every single vote—wins all of the state’s electoral votes.

Take a look at the situation in California in 2000.  There, Mr. Gore won almost 6 million votes to Mr. Bush’s 4.5 million.  Since more of California’s electorate voted for Mr. Gore than any other candidate, Mr. Gore received all fifty-four of California’s electoral votes.  Mr. Bush, on the other hand, received none.

The number of electoral votes a state has—and thus the influence it has to select the president—is determined by its population.  Being America’s most populous state, California has the most electoral votes.  Meanwhile Alaska, where Mr. Bush had nearly 170,000 votes to Mr. Gore’s 80,000, controls only three electoral votes.  Indeed Mr. Bush won in Alaska by a greater margin than Mr. Gore won in California, but the margin of victory does not matter: the Electoral College is an all-or-nothing game.  Thus Mr. Bush claimed Alaska’s three votes, and Mr. Gore claimed California’s much more significant fifty-four.

In total, there are 538 electoral votes, and to be elected president a candidate is required to acquire a majority—270—of them.  Theoretically, since the electoral votes of each state are determined all-or-nothing by who gains more votes within that state, a candidate could win 51% of votes within every state—thus 51% of the popular vote—and as a result get all 538 electoral votes; another candidate could win 49% of votes in each state and not get a single electoral vote.  But with any rule there are those who break it.  Nebraska and Maine award their electoral votes proportionally to the number of votes within the state for each candidate.  Whereas Mr. Gore tallied about 230,000 votes in Nebraska, around 35% of votes, and got four of the states nine electoral votes, Mr. Bush received 430,000 votes, about 60%, winning himself the other five electoral votes of Nebraska.

By the morning of November 8, 2000, the victor in all states had been decided with the exception of Florida.  Mr. Gore had won 266 electoral votes, and Mr. Bush had won 256.  Since each candidate needed Florida’s 25 electoral votes to secure the 270 necessary to become president, the winner in Florida would become the President-elect.  Meanwhile the several hundred votes by which Mr. Bush lead Mr. Gore, were too few for a decisive winner to be called.  After a recount of the votes ensued over the four weeks following Election Day, the Supreme Court ruled Florida’s recount unconstitutional and Mr. Bush was declared the winner of Florida and therefore the election.  That Mr. Gore captured more votes nationwide than Mr. Bush has no bearing on the method with which presidents are selected.

-David Lamb

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