OK, not a barn burning question for sure. I’ll admit this topic came up at a dinner party, and as I responded, everyone seemed to move away from me. It is a good topic to bring up at any dinner party where you would like guests to leave.
First, the electoral college was part of our constitution and you can’t pass a law in Congress and change this to the popular vote.
Second, the idea was a compromise solution in the creation of our constitution. The delegates who met at the Philadelphia Convention from May 25, 1787 to September 17, 1787 had a single purpose, to replace the original framework of federal government, the Articles of Confederation, with a more lasting structure. Prior to this time, there was only the unicameral Continental Congress and no judiciary or executive branch. The president of the Continental Congress was largely ceremonial and there was no salary for this position.
A debate raged at the Convention in 1787 on how to elect a president. Many suggested Congress throw in a hat, the names of three people who could be president, and they would be drawn at chance, thus allowing the hand of Providence to govern our selection (ok, I’m joking). One option was to have the Congress elect the president. Obviously, this could lead to a less democratic system. The idea of direct elections was an alternative, yet the problem at the time was the difficulty in the circulation of information. Radio transmission had not yet been invented. So, the compromise idea was the electoral college where the people of each state would vote for electors and en bloc they would cast their vote for the president.
There was a super wrong assumption made by some at the Convention in forming the electoral college. They added that if one candidate did not get the majority vote of electors, then the House of Representatives would decide by a majority the next president. Those who favored the House electing the president, thought this would happen frequently, because we would have multiple candidates. In fact, in our history this has only happened three times. There was nothing in our constitution to have a runoff election, as in many other countries. One candidate can become president if he wins the majority of the Electoral College by just one vote. At present, a tie is possible (269 to 269) and the House would have to decide.
The number of electoral votes are based on the state’s population. There have been improvements made in this system, such as the 12th amendment and the recent Supreme Court decision to allow States to bind electors to the candidate they have pledged to support. States have laws that fine electors who fail to vote for their pledged candidate. More information can be found in Wikipedia – see links.
Now, what precisely did I say that made guests at a dinner party move away from me? I said the Electoral College was a good thing as opposed to the popular vote. Here’s my logic. We are a closely divided country, Republicans and Democrats. Small splinter parties may emerge in the future to try to prevent a candidate from gaining 270 or more votes. Candidates tailor their election campaigns to the swing state voters, particularly if they see one candidate is on the rise. In this way, our elections in the 7 to 10 swing states will continue to be tight. If we have a near tie, under the Electoral College system, which could happen in this November, the losing party may ask for the courts intervention in a closely decided states. Immediately, potential recounts in states like North Carolina, Wisconsin or Florida come to mind, with the clock ticking to inauguration day. The Supreme Court decision on December 12, 2000 in Bush v. Gore created this precedent. However, It would be a hundred times worse under the popular vote to do a recount, with thousands of voting districts whose tally is called into question.
So, the 1787 compromise lives on. You’ll never get a 2/3 majority of both houses to amend the constitution.
Wikipedia: Philadelphia Convention
Wikipedia: Electoral College