An article this Tuesday from The Washington Post did some poor math to showcase that sometimes presenting raw data is kind of pointless. I’ll offer up some comments on why normalizing your data is a good idea and also comment on US Electoral College votes and what they say about the diversity of who the US has, so far, been willing to vote for.
Electoral College vote tallies are not equal
The first POTUS election occurred in 1788. Well actually it happened in late 1788 and early 1789 but the point is it happened almost 230 years ago in a US that had 37 fewer states, no electoral votes from the District of Columbia in part because DC wasn’t built yet, and a population of less than 4 million people compared to today’s ~324 million. The Electoral College has slowly (and not steadily) increased the number of electors from fewer than 100 (1788, 69 in effect, 81 in theory) to more than 200 (1812, 218) to more than 300 (1860, 303) to more than 300 again (1872, 366) to more than 400 (1884, 401) to more than 500 (1912, 531) before finally settling on 538 (1964). So a POTUS candidate since 1964 has needed 270 electoral votes to win a slim majority. … which is more electoral votes than existed in 11 POTUS elections.
Comparing those raw numbers is pointless for any kind of analysis that is less superficial than just pointing at the raw numbers: normalizing this data (running the Electoral College votes as percentages of the possible tally, for example) would make relative comparisons possible: John Quincy Adams captured fewer absolute Electoral College votes in 1824 than Michael Dukakis in 1988 or Bob Dole in 1996 but Adams got to live in the White House whereas Dukakis and Dole only got to visit.
The Electoral College has changed how it votes
For the first four Electoral College elections (1788, 1792, 1796, 1800), the electors would assemble in their state capitals and each elector would throw two names into a box. Or, a hat or a TARDIS or whatever, however a particular state decides to vote. And this method is similar to what happened this Monday except that for those four elections there were not distinct votes for President and Vice-President: whoever got the most electoral votes got to be President, and whoever got the 2nd most electoral votes got to be Vice-President.
In 1788 this ended up in an easy situation: there was a guy (George Washington
Carver) who everybody wanted to be President and then all the electors threw random votes at 11 other people and the person who got the most of those ended up as Vice-President. Congratulations to John Adams, he convinced 34 out of 69 white guys to vote for him, he got to be the first VPOTUS.
Similarly for 1792, Washington got 132 electoral votes and then 4 people fought it out for Vice-President, with John Adams and George Clinton getting most of those votes and two lame dudes named Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr getting 5 total.
1796 was the first real test of how this version of the Electoral College would work because Washington wanted to retire and north-south tensions were already starting to show as some states were okay with pushing for more centralized government and some wanted to stop and undo some of this centralization. This created a split between two nascent political parties, for whom John Adams became one preferred Presidential candidate and Thomas Jefferson the other. But the vote was a giant mess because electors had a preferred Presidential candidate but no consistent idea on who to support for that candidate’s Vice-President. Of the 276 electoral votes cast 71 were for Adams and 68 were for Jefferson: a very small plurality of electors favoured Adams over Jefferson. But the remaining 137 ballots were split among 11 other white guys, basically destroying the ability of any of them to be VPOTUS. So Adams got to be the 2nd POTUS, Jefferson the 2nd VPOTUS.
And that was hilarious because Adams and Jefferson had fundamental differences of opinion on lots of things, such as the fairly basic question “is it okay to own people as property” and in 1800 the first real angry POTUS election occurred between their two political parties and it was (pretend to be surprised when I say this) a giant mess. Unlike in 1796 where every state’s electors voted at the same time, the sixteen states which chose electors got to choose them over a 6 month period. The good news is that this made it easier to coordinate a solid President+Vice-President ticket! The hilarious news is that it also enabled the last state to vote (South Carolina) to face a tied vote between Jefferson and Adams. So their 8 electors decided that John Adams would not be the next President, by supplying winning votes to Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr. But wait there’s more: then that was broken because Jefferson and Burr both got the same number of votes, which meant that the US House of Representatives had to figure out whether Jefferson or Burr would be the next POTUS. They took a week to vote 36 times to finally decide on Jefferson instead of Burr.
This situation was so frustrating that the US added an amendment to the Constitution to prevent it ever happening again (note: if you want to quickly add an amendment to the US Constitution, make it about elections), and every Electoral College vote starting in 1804 has had a separate ballot for POTUS and VPOTUS. But then any discussion of every POTUS Electoral College vote over time is faced with a few options on how to handle the different ways the college has worked:
- Don’t count the first four elections’ worth of electors, since while they were counted as “votes for President” the intent of the votes was not always “votes for President”
- Only count Washington’s votes in 1788 and 1792 and Adams and Jefferson’s votes in 1796 and 1800, as only these were electoral votes intended for the next President
- Include all of those four elections’ Electoral College votes, but also include VPOTUS Electoral College votes for subsequent elections, acknowledging that the Electoral College chooses both positions
- Count them all as Electoral College votes for POTUS and don’t mention that that’s not really correct
For some reason The Washington Post article choose to do the last option; their list of “people who’ve received Electoral College votes for president” includes several people who technically did but whom technically were being voted for as Vice-President.
So whatever I’ll just pretend that the first four elections were a different category than the subsequent 54.
The First Four
Quick demographics: 21 total people. All white guys. Seven of them definitely owned slaves including one who owned slaves that he inherited from his dad, two definitely did not, and the other 12 really-quick-research sorted into “probably”, “maybe”, or “I dunno” categories.
How many were one-election wonders: 14 of them. All of them were VPOTUS contenders in either the 1788 or the 1796 election.
Who showed up for the most: John Adams got Electoral College votes in all four.
Who got a lot but never was POTUS or VPOTUS:
65: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Almost VPOTUS in 1800.
60: George Clinton. Got close to being VPOTUS in 1792.
59: Thomas Pinckney. Almost VPOTUS in 1796.
The Next 54
Quick demographics: 101 total people with three people overlapping from the first four elections. 99 men, two not. 98 white people, three not. 14 definitely owned slaves (two for a fairly short amount of time, but… still…), one I marked as a probably and two I marked as “I’m not sures.”
How many were not one-election wonders: 31. In this era it was more common for a candidate to receive Electoral College votes in more than one election than for a candidate to only receive Electoral College votes in one election.
How many have gotten POTUS electoral votes 4 times: 4. Kinda. Franklin Delano Roosevelt completely did, running for President in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. The other three men overlapped from the first four Electoral College votes: George Clinton received votes in 1788, 1792, 1796, and 1808, Thomas Jefferson during the elections between 1792 and 1804, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney during the elections between 1796 and 1808.
How many have gotten POTUS electoral votes 3 times: 7.
John Quincy Adams (1 vote in 1820, still counts)
Henry Clay. Over the longest time period: in 1824, 1832, and 1844.
William Jennings Bryan
Ronald Reagan (1 vote in 1976, still counts)
Who lost the Electoral College but became POTUS anyway? John Q. Adams. The 1824 election was weird.
How many electors have voted for no one? 19.
1 in 1864. Lincoln won the Nevada vote but 1 of the electors from that state voted abstain.
17 in 1872. Horace Greeley, the Democratic candidate, didn’t win the general election but he won 6 states. But then he died before the Electoral College voted, and his electors did one of three things: vote for 4 separate other candidates (including his running mate), vote for Greeley anyway in spite of his absence of life (these were disqualified votes), or vote abstain. 17 chose to vote abstain.
1 in 2000. A DC elector who was expected to vote for Gore abstained from voting because DC can’t vote in the US Congress.
And in terms of diversity of votes...
Which US states have voted for a not-male person for POTUS?
As of four days ago, none. As of three days ago, 20 plus DC. This Monday California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington all cast electoral votes for a woman POTUS. Washington cast electoral votes for two!
Which US states have voted for a not-white person for POTUS?
Before December 2008, none. Since then, 29 plus DC. One state has done so three times, as all of Washington’s electors voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then on Monday three voted for Colin Powell and one voted for Faith Spotted Eagle. Three states voted for a person of color once: Barack Obama captured all of Indiana and North Carolina’s electors in 2008, and one elector from Nebraska. The 25 states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin sent all of their electoral votes to Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Which US states have only voted for white men for POTUS?
Before December 2008, all 50 plus DC. Since then, 21. Over the course of 58 POTUS elections Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming have never sent an electoral vote to anyone but a white guy. Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina participated in all but one of those elections (Kentucky didn’t exist in 1788, Georgia and South Carolina weren’t in the US for the 1864 election) and so their electors have voted for a white guy 57 times.
- If you’re trying to make statements about “this person got more Electoral College votes than historical figure X” normalize your data first please please it hurts us robots when you don’t
- Every Electoral College vote so far that hasn’t been for a white guy has been from a Democratic elector. itmakesyouthink.gif
- But even that wasn’t true 8 years and a week ago. Things are capable of changing quickly, for good or for bad, and it’s good to sometimes find the good changes.
- One Electoral College member once voted for the same person for POTUS and VPOTUS so they’re people just like us.
- If you ever need a reminder that some POTUS have been horribly terrible people, reading a bit about all of them is a quick reminder that the next one is just one more rich delusional highly-fallible human being.