The original Electoral College was nothing like we see today. The framers of the Constitution did not create a popular election for President, but they settled instead on a collegial-method of selecting a President through a group of independent Electors. Nowhere in their nightmares did they contemplate that the Electoral college would be used to distort or devalue a popular vote.
The arguments in favor of their plan were explained in 1788 in the Federalist Papers when the Constitution was up for ratification. The framers envisioned that political leaders in the states would appoint Electors who would meet and decide among themselves who should be President. According to Alexander Hamilton, they would be independent agents, beholden to no one, and they would be “acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.” Consensus-building within the Electoral College was a key to its success. Since the Electors would likely have a personal knowledge of the candidates, this “affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” (Federalist Papers, no. 68)
Although the original Elector College seems strange today, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. In modern parlance, it could be seen as a peer-selection process for choosing a chief executive. Officials at one level of government meet and select the highest official for the next level of government – in much the same way that modern parliaments meet and select a prime minister. The system worked reasonably well for a time. During the first nine presidential elections, most Electors were appointed by state legislatures. George Washington was selected unanimously by the Electoral College in 1788, while Hamilton and other Electors lobbied to build a consensus. And in 1820—32 years after the Constitution was adopted—the consensus-building was still at work when the Electoral College chose James Monroe as President by a vote just one short of unanimous.
Although it lacked a direct, democratic input, this indirect process had an important advantage. Those being considered for President had to go through what amounted to a form of peer-review, passing the scrutiny of those who know them best. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, in such a system “there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
So what went wrong? How did the Electoral College morph into the distorted process that we have today? The quick answer is that in the pre-Civil War period state legislatures shredded the peer-selection function of the Electoral College and tried to engraft upon it a restricted form of popular voting. These changes were done state-by-state over a period of time without any constitutional sanction or approval, and they altered the system in a fundamental way. It was like lifting up the frame of a car and running a whole new vehicle underneath.
The Electoral College has become a parody of what Hamilton, Madison, and the other framers had in mind. In most states Electors’ names don’t appear on the ballot, and voters know nothing about them. Political parties are given the power to change the names of Electors even after the election and right up to the moment they are required to sign the official paperwork. State legislatures have stripped the Electors of all real power, requiring them to follow the directions of the political party that wins the plurality of the vote no matter how unfair or distorted the voting rules might be in that state. The institution that Hamilton thought would be “favorable to deliberation” acts only as a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere.
This gutting of the Electoral College might have been a positive step if it had resulted in a fair, democratic system of voting. But that’s not what happened. Instead, we are left with a system in which the popular vote is filtered through a system that was never designed for popular voting. The zombie-like version of the Electoral College that remains has no function other than to distort our elections.