The prospect that it could happen again this year has led to yet another campaign to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a simple majority vote.
But the Electoral College has proven resilient, and Constitutional rules make changing or eliminating it difficult. Here’s why it’s been so polarizing.
Some say the Electoral College ignores the will of the people
All but two states — Maine and Nebraska — give all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. Whichever candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes nationwide — at least 270 — becomes president.
Three times in the 1800s, the winner of the popular vote missed the presidency after falling short in the Electoral College, leading to complaints that the system ignored the will of the people.
The push to replace it intensified after the bitter presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by more than half a million votes but lost the election to George W. Bush after the Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida, the deciding state.
Opponents of the Electoral College got more ammunition in 2016 when Hillary Clinton received almost three million votes more than Donald Trump but still lost.
Since then, the movement to get rid of the Electoral College have gained more momentum. But so has resistance to changing it.
Some historians say it is rooted in racism
“Both during slavery and also after slavery, well into the 20th century in fact, the states of the South stood firmly in opposition to the adoption of a national popular vote,” he said. “The South was the bulwark of opposition during the period of slavery, of course, because slave-holding states received extra electoral votes thanks to the three-fifths clause.
“White Southerners, thus, gained added influence in the Electoral College, and if they had switched to a national popular vote, they would have lost that influence,” Keyssar said.
In this way Southern States used slave populations to increase their political influence without having to recognize slaves as equal to Whites. Most slaves also had no voting rights.
“The Electoral College brought that same three-fifths compromise into presidential elections and thus gave Southern states political power out of proportion to their White populations from the beginning,” Keyssar said.
Even now, some Southern states believe abolishing the Electoral College would reduce their influence and undermine White power, Keyssar said.
“The presence of racism and White supremacy in the South helps to prevent the country from adopting instead of the Electoral College a national popular vote,” he said.
Not everyone supports getting rid of it
America’s electoral system has long baffled the world. But some experts have defended it, saying the process gives a voice to less populated states.
“The Electoral College is a very carefully considered structure the Framers of the Constitution set up to balance the competing interests of large and small states,” wrote Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former commissioner for the FEC.
“It prevents candidates from winning an election by focusing only on high-population urban centers (the big cities), ignoring smaller states and the more rural areas of the country. … The college forces candidates to seek the support of a larger cross-section of the American electorate — to win a series of regional elections.”
While critics of the system have argued that Hillary Clinton lost the election unfairly, Spakovsky says her case is a perfect example of why the Electoral College works better than the majority vote.
“The Framers’ fears of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ is still very relevant today. One can see its importance in the fact that despite Hillary Clinton’s national popular vote total, she won only about a sixth of the counties nationwide, with her support limited mostly to urban areas on both coasts,” he said.
“Actually what would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do is White people will not have anything to say,” LePage said in a radio interview. “It’s only going to be the minorities that would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida. All the small states like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Rhode Island, you’ll never see a presidential candidate again.
“You’ll never see anybody at the national stage come to our state,” he added. “We’re gonna be forgotten people. It’s an insane, insane process.”
Reforming or abolishing it would be difficult
In a 2018 survey, 65% of Americans supported selecting the President by popular vote, compared to 32% who preferred the Electoral College.
But eliminating the Electoral College system would be hard, for several reasons.
Changing the Constitution takes years and requires broad majorities in Congress or state legislatures. Smaller states that benefit from the Electoral College would have to give up some of that power.
Politics has also played a role in preserving it, with many Republicans believing the Electoral College is more beneficial to their party.
“They think it’s to their advantage to keep the Electoral College. And since you need the two-thirds in Congress to amend the Constitution, it makes it difficult to do that if one party is opposing it,” Keyssar said. The current electoral system also divides power between the federal government and the states, making it complex to reform any one piece of it, he added.
So for better or worse, American voters may not be ditching the Electoral College anytime soon.
CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf contributed to this report