As election results roll in throughout the night — and no clear winner has been declared as I finish this post — the presidential race has been extremely close in some states. At one point, Hillary Clinton led in Michigan by 71 votes and in Florida by 26 votes, and the Libertarian party was grabbing five and six percent in some states. In many state races, it looks like neither candidate, Clinton nor Trump, will win a majority of the vote.
So what does that mean?
Majority vs. Plurality
The magic number of electoral votes a presidential candidate must win to achieve a majority — that is, 50 percent or more — is 270. But how they get those electoral votes from states doesn’t necessarily involve majorities.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, in all but two states — Nebraska and Maine — the presidential candidate with the most votes wins all the electoral votes for that state, even if the candidate did not win more than half of the votes. (Nebraska and Maine distribute their electoral votes proportional to the popular vote.)
If no one wins more than half the vote, the candidate who earns the most votes overall has won plurality, not a majority. Pluralities are fairly common in races with three or more candidates.
There will be a lot of reporting on election results in the coming weeks (or months, depending on how things go tonight). Accuracy counts! As you write or edit, don’t assume that the winner of an election won a majority of the votes — it may have been a plurality. Verify the numbers.
When was the last time we saw a plurality in a presidential election? According to the Federal Election Commission, none of the presidential candidates in the 2000 election received a majority of the popular vote. In fact, Al Gore won 48.38 percent, a plurality that just beat out George W. Bush’s 47.87 percent, though Bush won a majority of the electoral vote with 271 to Gore’s 266.
Only once in American history has the electoral vote resulted in a plurality. In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of both the electoral vote and the popular vote against contenders John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay. All four belonged to the same political party.
Our voting system was prepared for this possibility: When no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives decides the winner. It just so happened that, in 1824, last-place finisher Henry Clay was Speaker of the House, and he didn’t much like Jackson; he threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, who was awarded the presidency.
President Adams then installed Clay as Secretary of State, at the time considered a stepping stone to the presidency. Jackson’s supporters referred to this appointment as the Corrupt Bargain. Four years later, they came out in force during the next election and voted Jackson into the White House, making John Quincy Adams a one-term president, just like his father.