Witcover: Despite outrage, Electoral College remains secure

Twice in the last five presidential elections, the Democratic presidential nominees -- first Al Gore and then Hillary Clinton -- have had to suffer defeat in the Electoral College after having won the nationwide popular vote.

Mr. Gore in 2000 captured that vote by a half-million ballots, and the then sitting vice president had to endure the pain and humiliation of watching the Supreme Courtrule against him. After a public and arduous examination of Florida's "hanging chads," the court deliberated into the wee hours before deciding against Mr. Gore by a split 5-4 vote.


Ms. Clinton's loss this year came as more of a surprise, losing the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote by 2.8 million. But Mr. Gore had to undergo a personally more distasteful chore upon the opening of the next session of Congress in January 2001.

It fell to him as the departing president of the Senate to announce to the assembled members of the Senate and House the official results of the election by the Electoral College, which found him trailing Republican president-elect George W. Bush 271 to 266.


Furthermore, it thereby also fell to Mr. Gore on Inauguration Day two weeks later to stand on the platform of the Capitol steps to witness Mr. Bush taking the oath of office, so narrowly denied to Mr. Gore by the ruling of the Republican-majority Supreme Court.

That outcome fanned the same partisan demands for re-examining and amending the constitutional provision for the Electoral Collegethat has been heard now, but without quite the bitter uproar generated by Donald Trump's wider electoral margin this year.

In the early months of the younger Mr. Bush's first administration, much of the public distress over his election faded, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. George W. Bush declared himself a "wartime president" and rallied the country with a vow to exact revenge in the invasion of Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban regime gave the terrorists their staging ground.

Only when Mr. Bush pivoted to his war of choice against Iraq, which had no provable tie to the events of 9/11, and it dragged on to a calamity, did public support for his presidency eventually fade. He left office after a second term with low approval ratings and has since adopted a low public profile. .

This time around, Donald Trump approached 2016 Election Day as a longshot in most of the public-opinion polls, despite drawing huge campaign crowds. Many severe editorial attacks on him called him ill-fitted by experience and temperament for the presidency.

His upset victory over Hillary Clinton generated much louder and wider protests against the Electoral College than had resulted from the Bush-Gore contest of 2000. The more vehement opposition to Mr.  Trump reflected the losing side's view that Mr. Trump was infinitely more outrageous in style and behavior than Bush, falling far short of the standards of dignity expected of an Oval Office occupant.

But even that harsh and subjective assessment among the defeated failed to turn public ire sufficiently to shake the security of the Electoral College as the ultimate vehicle for choosing the president. A dismally few state electors assigned by the Constitution to do so declined to vote for Mr. Trump as their states had instructed them, and his election was easily confirmed last Monday.

In light of this fairly recent history, it seems unlikely the Electoral College is in much jeopardy. Only three earlier presidents -- Andrew Jackson in 1827, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Grover Cleland in 1888 -- were elected without winning the popular vote, and the institution is still standing.


If the turmoil caused by the Trump-Clinton campaign was unable to stir the electorate to demand the popular-vote election of the president, one can only wonder what it will take to bring that about. Apparently not even that other Supreme Court ruling sanctioning the idea of one man (or woman), one vote.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is