Ever since the advent of America’s constitutional republic, much ink has been spilled over the electoral college, the system devised by the founders for electing presidents and vice-presidents.
Each of America’s 50 states is awarded a proportionate number of votes in the electoral college based on their population, as reflected in the number of congressional districts in that state. That number is added together with the two senators from the state. The smallest states have as few as three electoral votes (there are seven such states, including DC), while California has the most at 55. A candidate must capture 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Many have asked...why in the world would we not just elect the presidential candidate with the most votes?
Well, there were a few reasons. Each of the original 13 states jealously guarded their own autonomy at a time when our national identity was still young and fragile. They distrusted distant and centralized authority, as obviously reflected in their revolution against the British crown and their ratification of the US Constitution. They also were wary of political parties, which began to form in the generation following the formation of our constitutional republic.
Geography was another factor in a nation of four million people spread over a thousand miles at a time when transportation was very slow and communication very spotty. This made national campaigns difficult and undesirable
There was also a school of thought that gentlemen - presumably, only gentlemen, as opposed to scoundrels, were expected to run - should not campaign for public office.
There were other options considered by the founders - that the congress or state legislatures should choose the president, or that we would have direct elections in which the popular vote would carry the day. All of these ideas were rejected for reasons ranging from concern over the predominance of parochial interests to insufficient separation of power between the legislative and executive branches.
In the case of direct election, it was feared that little information would be available to voters across the land, and thus voters would tend to support the candidates closest to them, and in such an arrangement, the larger states would dominate the smaller states.
Finally, the Constitutional Convention proposed the electoral college, which most resembles the College of Cardinals employed by the Roman Catholic Church in selecting the Pope. The founders ultimately determined that informed individuals from each individual state would be best suited to decide who should serve in the highest office in the land. The procedures used by the electoral college were later modified with passage of the 12th amendment, but the structure remains the same
If you think about it, the electoral college is consistent with our constitutional republic. After all, we the people do not actually decide on matters of public interest as if by a large town hall with a show of hands. We decide who should decide when we elect members of congress. That is representative democracy, just as it is in the electoral college.
If the electoral college were replaced by direct election, presidential candidates would never visit small states, but would pitch their tents in the biggest cities, where the most people could see them in the least time.
The lack of a truly national campaign is already a real issue, though significantly mitigated by the internet and 24/7/365 news cycle. In 2012, only about 20% of the states are in play, meaning they are battlegrounds distinct from the 80% of the states that both major presidential candidates deem unworthy of their time and attention because they so heavily favor one candidate or the other. Evidence that the purpose of the electoral college is still relevant is that half of the states where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are spending all their time between now and Election Day have less than ten electoral votes. The Democratic and Republican candidates may not be visiting Delaware, Rhode Island, Utah or Hawaii, but they are visiting Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire.
If only because of the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments as well as competing amendment proposals, the electoral college is likely to be with us for the duration. After all, in 2000, the presidency was won by the candidate with 500,000 fewer popular votes but three more electoral votes, and if there was no serious movement to abolish the electoral college after that election, it is unlikely ever to be abolished.
And that is a good thing, because it may be, as Winston Churchill once said of democracy itself, the worst possible system...except for all the rest.