The U. S. Electoral College is a vestige of the Founding Fathers’ fear of the popular vote. They got the idea from European models such as the College of Prince-electors who elected the Holy Roman Emperor, and the College of Cardinals that elects the Pope.
Although the U.S. Founding Fathers established a republic to be run on democratic principles, they still wanted a way to control the popular vote.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the other architects of the Constitution were all educated property owners. They shared an 18th century mindset. To them, women were not rational enough to be allowed to vote. To them, Africans and American Indians were not completely human. And they didn’t have a lot of confidence in the judgment of other white men who didn’t share their background and education.
The FFs felt that the mass of voters were not sufficiently educated or informed to elect the President without guidance from men wiser than they. For that reason, they set up the process known as the electoral college. The “college” is not a place, but a collection of political party members who gather in their respective states after a presidential election.
Virginia had the most voters
A second factor feeding into the creation of the electoral college was the fact that Virginia had all the political clout; representatives of the less-populated states wanted a way to strengthen their influence in the federal government. (Four of the first five Presidents were from Virginia, so you can see how well that worked out.)
The Electoral College was a clumsy device from the beginning.
Then, as now, candidates for the Presidency ran on a party ticket, but they were voted on separately. Each elector could vote twice. There was no separate vote for Vice-President. The candidate who got the most votes became President. The one with the second highest number of votes became Vice-President.
The flaw in this arrangement became evident in the 1796 election.
President and Vice-president on different sides
John Adams (Massachusetts) ran on the Federalist ticket with Thomas Pinckney (S. Carolina). They were opposed by Thomas Jefferson (Va.) and Aaron Burr (NY) on the Republican ticket. Adams got the most votes, but his running mate was beaten out by Jefferson. The embarrassing result was that the President and Vice-President were from different political parties.
When the 1800 election came around, both parties had a plan to avoid the previous fiasco. This time it was John Adams and Alexander Hamilton on the Federalist ticket and Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr on the Republican ticket.
Both sides had the idea of having one elector refrain from voting for the second candidate on their ticket. That way the one they wanted to be President would lead by one vote. The Republican elector must not have gotten the memo because Jefferson and Burr tied for votes. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives; they chose Jefferson.
This time Congress decided that the electoral college needed to be overhauled, so they passed the Twelfth Amendment (1804). The rules were changed so that electors would cast one vote specifically for President and one vote specifically for Vice-President.
The Electoral College is still a clumsy and essentially undemocratic apparatus.
It’s time for 21st century Americans to ask if this archaic constitutional feature should survive in a country of more than 300 million people. They have access to thirteen years of free public education, free public libraries, and an avalanche of information available no matter where they live. They should be able to make their own political decisions.
In all other democratic societies, presidential elections are decided on the basis of one citizen, one vote. Only the United States filters the will of a democracy’s electorate through a political elite.
Early state population were tiny by modern standards
Here are the 1770 population figures of the first 13 states, paired with a present-day town or city with an equivalent population. (2017 figures)
Connecticut, 183,000 (Tallahassee FL)
Delaware, 35,000 (Bentonville AR)
Georgia, 23,000 (Winchester VA)
Maryland, 202,000 ( Modesto CA)
Massachusetts, 268,000 ( Plano TX)
New Hampshire, 62,000 (Springfield OH)
New Jersey, 117,000 (Evansville IN)
New York, 162,000 (Springfield MO)
North Carolina, 197,000 (Yonkers, NY)
Pennsylvania, 240,000 (Laredo TX)
Rhode Island 58,000 (Bowling Green KY)
South Carolina, 124,000 (Hartford CT)
Virginia, 447,000 (Mesa, AZ)
Who elects the Electors?
The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United States. Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their State party conventions or by a vote of the party’s central committee in each State. Electors are often selected to recognize their service and dedication to their political party. They may be State-elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate. Then the voters in each State choose the electors on the day of the general election. The electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each State.
What is the Electoral College? (US government site)