POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

Popular Vote

The term “popular vote” has two different meanings. The first simply refers to a democratic vote which has been put to an entire electorate, which could be in the form of an election or referendum. For example, the subject of European Union membership has always been polarizing in the United Kingdom. In 2016 a decision on the matter was put to a “popular vote” in the form of a referendum resulting in "Brexit".

The second meaning of the term refers to the decision made by voters reflected in the share of votes won by a particular candidate, party or option in a referendum. Using the Brexit referendum example, the option to leave won 52% of the popular vote. In a simple binary referendum such as Brexit, this popular vote majority directly translated into the success for the leave option. 

However, in more complex votes such as the US Presidential election, winning a greater share of the popular vote doesn’t always translate into electoral victory. In 2016, for example, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won 48.5% of the popular vote across the US to Republican Donald Trump’s 46.4%, however the latter ended up winning the presidency. This is because the US electoral college system uses a “winner-takes-all” majoritarian electoral system, which means the number of electors won doesn’t necessarily correspond to a candidate’s share of the popular vote. Put another way, the share of the popular vote refers to the number of votes won across the country, but depending on the electoral system in place, this may or may not correspond to the number of seats won.

See also: Presidential Election, US Electoral College, First Past the Post

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