Rather than being elected directly by the people, Article II of the Constitution specifies that the President and Vice President will be elected by the Electoral College. Electors assemble in their states in January following the November election and vote for the Presidential candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. The candidate who receives the highest vote in the Electoral College becomes the President and the person with the next highest number of votes becomes the Vice President.
In the first Presidential election, General George Washington of Virginia receives one vote from each of the sixty-nine electors, making him the only President to achieve a unanimous vote in the Electoral College. As each elector casts two ballots without designating which is for President or Vice President, John Adams of Massachusetts, receiving the next highest number of electoral votes, is elected as Vice President. There are not yet any formal political parties.
John Adams, running as a Federalist, receives the largest number of votes and is elected President. Thomas Jefferson, who ran against Adams as the Democratic-Republican candidate, receives the next highest vote and is elected Vice President. The two rivals disagree strongly over federal policies.
In the Presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson runs for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President on the Democratic-Republican ticket. Both get 73 votes in the Electoral College. This forces the election into the House of Representatives, where the Federalist Party holds the majority. Opposition to Jefferson causes many Federalists to vote for Burr. Repeatedly casting ballots, the House is unable to reach a majority for any candidate until former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton intervenes with Federalists and persuades them to vote for Jefferson on the thirty-seventh ballot. This event spurs demand for the Twelfth Amendment.
During the Era of Good Feelings, when only one political party exists, President James Monroe runs unopposed for reelection in 1820. Former Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire casts his electoral vote for John Quincy Adams rather than for Monroe, to whom he is pledged. Otherwise, Monroe would have received a unanimous vote in the Electoral College. Plumer says he feels that only George Washington deserves a unanimous election.
For the first time the winner of the popular vote does not become the President. In a multiple candidate race, Andrew Jackson receives 41 percent of the popular vote, more than his opponents but less than a majority. Four candidates receive electoral votes, but none has enough to constitute a majority. The House of Representatives then meets to decide the winner. House rules call for a vote on the top three contenders from the Electoral College, Speaker Henry Clay, who comes in fourth, is removed from consideration. Clay throws his support to John Quincy Adams, who has come in second to Jackson. When the House picks Adams as President, Adams appoints Clay secretary of state. Jackson and his supporters call this a “corrupt bargain.”
Galvanized by their anger over the previous presidential election, Jackson and his supporters mount an intense campaign against President John Quincy Adams, who is defeated for reelection. This time, in a two-person race, Jackson wins both the majority of the popular and electoral votes and ousts Adams from the Presidency.
A number of Democrats oppose the choice of Richard Mentor Johnson to run for Vice President on the ticket with Martin Van Buren. When the members of the Electoral College cast their ballots, Van Buren receives 170 electoral votes and is duly elected President. But Johnson receives only 147 electoral votes, more than his closest contender, but one less than the majority needed for his election. Under the Constitution, the Vice Presidential election then goes to the U.S. Senate. With forty-nine of the fifty-two senators present and voting along party lines, Johnson receives 33 votes, which is enough for the Senate to declare that he has been elected Vice President of the United States.
On Election Day, Democrat Samuel Tilden wins the popular vote by a margin of less than 250,000 votes (out of 8.5 million votes cast) against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. But Tilden’s 184 electoral votes are one short of the necessary majority, while Hayes’s 165 electoral votes leave him 20 votes shy of winning the Presidency. Several of the southern states under Reconstruction rule, submit two slates of electors, one for Tilden and the other for Hayes. Because Republicans control the Senate and Democrats hold the majority in the House, they cannot reach agreement on which ballots to count. They establish an Electoral Commission, composed of senators, representatives, and Supreme Court justices. Voting on party lines, the commission awards all the disputed electors to Hayes, giving him a one-vote victory in the Electoral College, and the Presidency.
Running for reelection, the Democratic incumbent President Grover Cleveland wins the popular vote by 90,596 votes (out of 11.3 million votes cast). But Cleveland loses the Electoral College vote to the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland accepts the outcome, but comes back to defeat Harrison in 1892.
In the case of Roy v. Blair, the United States Supreme Court holds that a state cannot constitutionally require its electors to vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged. There have been at least four instances in which individual electors failed to vote for their party’s candidate. The first occurred after the 1820 election, then 1956, 1960, and 1968, each peculiar to the wishes of an individual elector. None of these instances affected the election’s outcome.
Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for President, wins the popular vote by a half-million vote margin, but the outcome of the Electoral College vote depends on the state of Florida, which gives a slim margin to the Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush. A machine recount confirms Bush’s lead, but Gore protests significant voting irregularities and calls for more extensive recounting by hand. The Florida Supreme Court supports Gore’s position, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturns that decision, clearing the way for Bush to become President.