It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Such a good idea, wrote Alexander Hamilton, that even those who denounced the rest of the brand-new Constitution agreed that the Electoral College was a marvelous innovation for choosing a president.
"If the manner of it be not perfect," Hamilton wrote in March 1788 (Federalist No. 68), "it is at least excellent."
That was almost the last time anybody had anything good to say about the Electoral College. Today most Americans regard it as anachronistic at best and a potential instrument for thwarting the popular will and throwing a presidential election to a ballot-box loser. It has done so at least twice.
Why were Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers so proud of their creation, and why did they devise it as they did?
Technically, Americans don't vote for their president. They vote in each state for "electors" who later cast the votes that choose the president. Thus there are 50 statewide elections, not one national election. The winner of each state's popular vote gets all of its electoral votes, equal to the number of senators and representatives in its delegation to Congress.
To Hamilton, this scheme seemed democratic because it rested on an initial popular vote, rather than leaving the presidential choice to Congress, for example, or to electors chosen by state legislatures:
"It was desirable, that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture. ... A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations."
Hamilton also sought to limit "the opportunity [for] tumult and disorder." The Electoral College, he hoped, could buffer the passions of an uninformed public that might easily be misled:
"The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each state, are to assemble and vote in the state in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place."
Hamilton also sought to forestall "cabal, intrigue and corruption," particularly arising from "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils." Removing the selection of the president from any pre-existing bodies limited the scope for tampering. A further constitutional provision barred U.S. senators and representatives, or any "person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States" from being appointed an elector.
Finally, Hamilton argued that the Electoral College would free the president from the temptation to tailor his administration toward securing re-election. Hamilton concluded that the Electoral College all but guaranteed that the best men would become president:
"Talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union. ... It will not be too strong to say that there will a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."
Problems began almost immediately. The Constitution provided that the runner-up in the Electoral College should become vice president. That saddled the Federalist John Adams with his chief opponent, Thomas Jefferson, a heartbeat away from the presidency. In 1804, the Constitution was amended to provide separate elections for the two offices, and the running-mate system developed.
Three times the Electoral College system took the election out of the voters' hands. In 1800 Jefferson and Aaron Burr deadlocked, with 73 votes apiece. Under the Constitution, in such cases the House of Representatives decides the election, voting by states. For 35 ballots, the states - 16 of them then - split evenly. Finally, Hamilton decided he mistrusted Burr, a fellow Federalist, more than he opposed Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. He persuaded some states to switch their votes, and Jefferson became president.
In 1824 four candidates divided the electoral vote, and none held a majority. In the House of Representatives, Henry Clay, who had finished fourth, threw his support to second-place finisher John Quincy Adams, who leapfrogged Andrew Jackson, who had a plurality of the popular vote, and became president.
Only once has the electoral college reversed a popular vote that had a majority winner. In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden beat Rutherford B. Hayes by 4.3 million votes to 4 million. But Hayes won the key states and the election, 185 electoral votes to 184. In a close election - such as the one expected this year - it could happen again.
Another criticism of the Electoral College is that in 26 states electors are not bound by the popular vote. This produces an occasional anomaly, as in 1960, when 15 Southern electors voted for Harry Byrd, a Virginia senator who had not campaigned for president, instead of for John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon.
These "faithless electors" have never affected an election outcome, but third-party candidates occasionally have shown enough regional strength to win a few states. Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 did so, but they did not gather enough votes to deprive Harry S. Truman and Nixon of Electoral College majorities.
Often, the Electoral College produces a majority winner even when the popular vote does not. In addition to Truman and Nixon among 20th-century presidents, Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 fell short of 50 percent of the popular vote.
The Electoral College shapes campaign strategy. Most states are sure things for one party or the other - South Carolina and Kansas for the Republicans, for example, or Minnesota and Maryland for the Democrats. In most elections, a dozen or so states are "in play," capable of being won by either party. So those states - this year they include Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Missouri - are where the candidates spend most of their time and money. Or they woo big states such as California (54 electoral votes) and Texas (32) and ignore small states such as Wyoming and Delaware (3 each).
Electoral College reform has been a bee in many a political scientist's bonnet. A constitutional amendment might not be necessary if each state adopted legislation to award its votes by proportional representation. But the larger and "in-play" states are unlikely to agree to the dilution of their importance. Impetus for change will probably have to await the next time a close election combines with the distortions of the Electoral College to deny the presidency to the winner of a popular-vote plurality.