WASHINGTON - The Electoral College has been called an accident waiting to happen, because it can produce, as it has in three presidential elections, a winner who is not the popular choice of American voters.
It might have happened a fourth time, on Tuesday, when Vice President Al Gore won a narrow majority of the popular vote over Gov. George W. Bush of Texas but faces the possibility of losing the electoral vote because of a razor-thin decision apparently favoring Bush in Florida.
The system of using the popular vote in each state to award "electors" to the winning candidate - who, in turn, cast the state's electoral votes in an Electoral College that never meets - is an outgrowth of the Founding Fathers' dispute over the influence of larger and smaller states.
The founders compromised in creating the Electoral College. It gives each state the same number of electors as it has members in the House of Representatives and Senate combined - now a total of 535, plus three for the District of Columbia. A majority - 270 - is required for election. If no one achieved a majority, the election would go to the House, with each state having one vote, to decide the outcome.
The founders had debated whether the national legislature or "the people" should pick the president. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts warned that "the people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men." George Mason of Virginia added that "it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colors to a blind man."
A compromise was struck, with state-appointed state electors, none of whom could hold public office, serving in the framework of an Electoral College.
It turned out to be less a college and more a correspondence school. The electors met in their own states after the election to cast their votes, with the sealed results forwarded to the president of the Senate for counting and certification before members of both houses of Congress.
The system worked smoothly in the first election, of George Washington, because he was a unanimous choice. At first, each elector named two presidential preferences, with the one getting the most votes becoming president and the runner-up vice president. But a tie electoral vote in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr threw the decision to the House, which after much acrimony chose Jefferson. The process of "double balloting" was subsequently scrapped, with the president and vice president thereafter chosen separately.
The first occasion in which the popular-vote winner lost the presidency occurred in 1824, when Andrew Jackson won 99 electors, with 131 needed for election. The decision again went to the House, where John Quincy Adams, the runner-up in electoral votes, was selected by 13 states of the 24 then in the Union.
House Speaker Henry Clay, who had run third in the popular vote, was accused of making a deal with Adams, steering his electoral votes to Adams in return for appointment as secretary of state. Clay denied any deal but did get the job, leading Jackson to write: "Was there ever witnessed such a bare-faced corruption in any country before?"
The system worked smoothly until 1876, when the winner of the popular vote, Democratic Gov. Samuel Tilden of New York, won the popular vote by 250,000 ballots over Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio but was one electoral vote shy of a majority. Evidence of fraud in four states - South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Oregon - produced two sets of electors from each.
Twenty electors were in dispute, and Tilden needed only one of them to win. A special commission of five senators, five House members and five Supreme Court justices was appointed. The party breakdown was eight Republicans, seven Democrats. By straight party line, all 20 disputed electors were awarded to Hayes, and he was declared the next president.
In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by 95,000 but lost the electoral vote to Republican Benjamin Harrison amid widespread reports of vote buying and voter intimidation. When Harrison thanked Providence for his election, Pennsylvania GOP party boss Matthew Quay quipped: "Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it."
That was the last time a popular-vote winner lost in the Electoral College, but there have been other close calls. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson had 582,000 more popular votes than Charles Evans Hughes, but Hughes needed only 12 more electoral votes, which he didn't get when California, which then had 13, went to Wilson by 3,806 votes out of nearly 1 million cast.
In 1948, the presence of two minor-party candidates, Progressive Henry A. Wallace and States' Righter Strom Thurmond, threatened another electoral crisis. Wallace didn't win any electoral votes, but Thurmond won 39 from the South, not enough to deny Harry Truman the electoral votes needed to go with his popular-vote triumph over Republican Thomas E. Dewey.