Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or Mitt Romney could easily have been president depending on how ballots are counted. Primary voters and candidates complained about various state-by-state rules that created different outcomes, raising claims “rigged” schemes. Our elections can be complicated (to say the least). We explored what would happen under different electoral systems — and found that adjusted rules could have changed the outcome in more than half of the presidential elections since 2000.

Current U.S. system for picking the president

Complicated and unequal

You’ve probably never met a presidential elector – the people who voted Dec. 19 to pick the president of the United States. There are only 538 of them for a country of almost 325 million people.

That's because the white guys who wrote the rules (the Constitution and amendments) did not trust regular people and wanted to give slave-holding states more votes without letting blacks vote. So they created “indirect” elections, where voters get to pick some people, and then those people get to vote for president.

The system is further complicated because a voter in a small state gets more say in picking electors than a voter in a big state. And states have different rules. Almost all states assign their electoral votes as winner-take-all, but Maine and Nebraska award electors by congressional districts. And a lurking mystery is whether electors really have to do what voters in the state said, anyway. Most states have laws “binding” the delegates, but legal scholars have debated whether the electors could still go rogue and vote their conscience.

These are the states each candidate won weighted using electoral votes.

2000

One of the

delegates from

the District of

Columbia

abstained.

270 to win

266

271

George W. Bush

Al Gore

2004

270 to win

252

286

John Kerry

George W. Bush

2008

Obama got one of

Nebraska’s districts

270 to win

365

173

Barack Obama

John McCain

2012

270 to win

332

206

Barack Obama

Mitt Romney

2016

270 to win

227

304

Hillary

Clinton

Donald

Trump

... creating these results.

These are the states each candidate won ....

... which won this

many electoral votes ...

2000

266

Al Gore

271

George

W. Bush

One of the delegates from

the District of Columbia abstained.

2004

252

John

Kerry

286

George

W. Bush

2008

Obama got one of

Nebraska’s districts

365

Barack

Obama

173

John

McCain

2012

332

Barack

Obama

206

Mitt

Romney

Four Washington

electors voted for

someone other

than Clinton

2016

227

Hillary

Clinton

304

Donald

Trump

These are the states each candidate won ....

2016

Wash.

Maine

Trump picked the

electoral vote

from Maine’s

second district.

Mont.

N.D.

Minn.

Ore.

Idaho

Wis.

S.D.

N.Y.

Wyo.

Mich.

Pa.

Iowa

Nev.

Neb.

Ohio

Ind.

Ill.

Utah

Colo.

Va.

Calif.

Kan.

Mo.

Ky.

N.C.

Tenn.

Ariz.

Okla.

Ark.

S.C.

N.M.

Miss.

Ala.

Ga.

La.

Donald Trump

carried six states

that voted for Obama

in 2012.

Texas

Alaska

Hawaii

Fla.

2000

2004

2008

2012

... which won this many electoral votes ...

A democratic elector tried to vote

for Bernie Sanders, but state officials

ruled that the vote was improper and

ordered a revote. The elector voted

then for Hillary Clinton.

Four Washington electors voted for

someone other than Clinton.

Colin Powell got three votes.

Teh other was for Faith

Spotted Eagle.

N.Y.

Mass.

Wis.

Mich.

R.I.

Conn.

Wash.

Pa.

Ore.

Minn.

Ohio

Neb.

Ill.

Nev.

N.J.

Ind.

W.Va.

Iowa

Colo.

Utah

Ky.

Md.

Kan.

Calif.

Ariz.

Mo.

N.M.

Tenn.

Va.

Ark.

N.C.

Texas

Ala.

Miss.

Ga.

Two electors in Texas

voted for John Kasich

and Ron Paul.

La.

S.C.

Bernie Sanders

received one vote

in Hawaii.

Fla.

270 to win

227

304

Hillary

Clinton

Donald

Trump

2000

2004

2008

2012

Obama got one of

Nebraska’s districts

One of the

delegates from

the District of

Columbia

abstained.

270 to win

270 to win

270 to win

270 to win

266

271

252

286

365

173

332

206

Al

Gore

George W.

Bush

John

Kerry

George W.

Bush

Barack

Obama

John

McCain

Barack

Obama

Mitt

Romney

Proportional by state

Drop winner-take-all and learn to share

Another seemingly simple concept, used in many states for the presidential primaries, is to assign electors according to the share of votes each candidate got. As with pure popular vote, this would encourage candidates to pursue votes in every state, not just those they can win outright. Proportional results are less decisive than winner-take-all so there’s less chance of a clear winner with a mandate to lead. In both 2000 and 2016, no candidate would have won a majority, so some combination of parties would have to form a coalition to get 270 electoral votes, or the country could have a do-over election.

2000

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

HI

ID

IL

IN

IA

KY

KS

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

MT

NJ

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MO

NC

ND

NY

OH

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

PA

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

WV

WY

WI

CHANGE

50%

Gore

Bush

Nader

262

263

13

Bush would get one electoral vote more than Gore, but a coalition would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote.

2004

50%

600

Nader

Kerry

Bush

1

259

278

Nader would have picked up his only vote from New York.

2008

50%

100

200

300

400

500

Obama

McCain

287

251

No third-party candidate would have earned a single electoral vote.

2012

50%

600

Johnson

Romney

Obama

2

258

278

Gary Johnson would have received electoral votes in California and Texas.

2016

CHANGE

50%

Clinton

Johnson

McMullin

Trump

268

2

1

267

Clinton would be the candidate with more votes, but a coalition with Johnson would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote. Trump would need to get together with both Johnson and McMullin to reach a majority.

2000

2004

CHANGE

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

HI

ID

IL

IN

IA

KY

HI

ID

KS

IL

IN

IA

KY

KS

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

MT

NJ

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MO

MT

NJ

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MO

NC

ND

NY

OH

NC

ND

NY

OH

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

PA

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

PA

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

WV

WY

WI

WV

WY

WI

50%

50%

Kerry

Bush

Gore

Nader

Nader

Bush

259

278

262

13

1

263

Bush would get one electoral vote more than Gore, but a coalition would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote.

Nader would have picked up his only vote from New York.

2008

2012

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

HI

ID

IL

IN

IA

KY

KS

HI

ID

IL

IN

IA

KY

KS

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

MT

NJ

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MO

MT

NJ

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MO

NC

ND

NY

OH

NC

ND

NY

OH

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

PA

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

PA

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

WV

WY

WI

WV

WY

WI

50%

50%

Obama

McCain

Obama

Romney

Johnson

287

251

278

258

2

No third-party candidate would have earned a single electoral vote.

Gary Johnson would have received electoral votes in California and Texas.

2016

CHANGE

CO

CT

DC

AL

AZ

AR

CA

DE

FL

AK

ID

HI

GA

IL

KY

IA

KS

IN

LA

ME

MD

MA

NH

MI

MN

NJ

NE

NM

MO

MT

MS

NV

NY

NC

OH

ND

OK

OR

SC

RI

SD

TN

PA

WV

TX

VT

WY

VA

WA

WI

UT

50%

Clinton

Johnson

McMullin

Trump

268

2

1

267

Clinton would be the candidate with more votes, but a coalition with Johnson would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote. Trump would need to get together with both Johnson and McMullin to reach a majority.

2016

CHANGE

ID

HI

CO

CT

DC

GA

AL

AZ

AR

CA

DE

FL

AK

IL

KY

IA

KS

IN

LA

ME

NH

NC

MD

MA

MI

MN

NJ

OH

NE

NM

MO

MT

ND

MS

NV

NY

OK

OR

WV

SC

RI

TX

SD

VT

WY

VA

WA

WI

TN

PA

UT

50%

Clinton

Johnson

McMullin

Trump

268

2

1

267

Clinton would be the candidate with more votes, but a coalition with Johnson would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote. Trump would need to get together with both Johnson and McMullin to reach a majority.

CHANGE

2000

2004

2008

2012

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

AL

AK

AZ

AR

CA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

CO

CT

DE

DC

FL

GA

HI

ID

HI

ID

HI

ID

HI

ID

IL

IN

IA

IL

IN

IA

IL

IN

IA

IL

IN

IA

KY

KY

KY

KY

KS

KS

KS

KS

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

ME

MD

MA

MI

MN

LA

LA

LA

LA

MT

NJ

MT

NJ

MT

NJ

MT

NJ

NV

NH

NV

NH

NV

NH

NV

NH

MS

NE

NM

MS

NE

NM

MS

NE

NM

MS

NE

NM

MO

MO

MO

MO

NC

NC

NC

NC

ND

ND

ND

ND

NY

OH

NY

OH

NY

OH

NY

OH

OK

OR

RI

SC

OK

OR

RI

SC

OK

OR

RI

SC

OK

OR

RI

SC

SD

TN

SD

TN

SD

TN

SD

TN

PA

PA

PA

PA

TX

UT

VT

TX

UT

VT

TX

UT

VT

TX

UT

VT

VA

WA

VA

WA

VA

WA

VA

WA

WV

WV

WV

WV

WY

WY

WY

WY

WI

WI

WI

WI

50%

50%

50%

50%

Obama

McCain

Gore

Nader

Kerry

Nader

Bush

Bush

Johnson

Romney

Obama

287

251

262

259

1

278

13

2

258

263

278

Bush would get one electoral vote more than Gore, but a coalition would be needed to get over 50 percent of the vote.

Nader would have picked up his only vote from New York.

No third-party candidate would have earned a single electoral vote.

Gary Johnson would have received electoral votes in California and Texas.

Parliamentary democracy

Romney is president, using the speaker of the House system

Data for congressional-district-level results of the 2016 presidential election are not yet available.

Countries like Britain have voters in every district choose a party, and the party that wins the most districts gets to pick the top leader, which they call the prime minister. That’s very similar to picking U.S. House representatives, who then pick the speaker of the House. This system has the advantage of giving voters everywhere relatively equal weight in picking the leader. Because Republican state legislatures effectively redrew congressional district lines after the 2010 census, Democrats got more votes for Congress in 2012 but Republicans won 33 more seats. These maps show which presidential candidate won each congressional district (special results created by Polidata). Using this system, Romney would have won.

2000

50%

240

195

Gore

Bush

2004

50%

256

179

Kerry

Bush

2008

50%

242

193

Obama

McCain

2012

CHANGE

50%

209

226

Obama

Romney

2000

2004

50%

50%

256

195

240

179

Bush

Bush

Gore

Kerry

2012

2008

CHANGE

50%

50%

226

209

193

242

Obama

Romney

Obama

McCain

2012

2000

2004

2008

CHANGE

50%

50%

50%

50%

195

240

179

256

242

193

209

226

Bush

Gore

Kerry

Bush

Obama

McCain

Obama

Romney

Contingent elections

Using the tiebreaker, once again Romney and Trump are presidents

Currently, if the electors are deadlocked, the presidential election goes to the House of Representatives. The House has picked three presidents. The twist in this indirect form of election is that each representative does not get a vote. Instead, each state delegation has to agree on a vote. States with a mix of Democratic and Republican representatives might not agree on the presidential pick. The 2012 election yielded 30 states with a Republican-majority House delegation, so Romney would probably have been president under that system. And again in 2016, Republicans control 32 state delegations, so a decision by the House would probably favor Trump.

2000

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

28

18

0

100

200

300

500

400

Gore

Bush

2004

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

17

30

600

Bush

Kerry

2008

ME

VT

NH

WI

ID

WA

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

RI

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

16

33

0

100

200

300

400

500

McCain

Obama

2012

CHANGE

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

WY

SD

IN

OH

PA

CT

RI

NV

IA

NJ

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

30

17

600

Romney

Obama

2016

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

17

32

Clinton

Trump

2000

2004

ME

ME

WI

VT

NH

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

HI

AK

TX

FL

TX

FL

50%

50%

30

18

28

17

Bush

Bush

Kerry

Gore

2008

2012

CHANGE

ME

ME

VT

NH

WI

VT

NH

WI

ID

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

WA

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

RI

OR

WY

SD

IN

OH

PA

CT

RI

NV

IA

NJ

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

TX

FL

50%

50%

30

33

16

17

Obama

McCain

Romney

Obama

2016

ME

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

50%

17

32

Clinton

Trump

2016

114th Congress

ME

50%

WI

VT

NH

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

17

32

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

Clinton

Trump

2000

2004

2008

2012

107th Congress

109th Congress

111th Congress

113th Congress

CHANGE

ME

ME

ME

ME

WI

VT

NH

WI

VT

NH

VT

NH

WI

VT

NH

WI

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

ID

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

WA

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

RI

OR

WY

SD

IN

OH

PA

CT

RI

NV

IA

NJ

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

HI

AK

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

AK

TX

FL

TX

FL

TX

FL

TX

FL

50%

50%

50%

50%

17

30

16

17

33

28

18

30

Bush

Obama

McCain

Romney

Gore

Bush

Kerry

Obama

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