ONCE UPON A TIME, the Electoral College was not controversial. During the debates over ratifying the Constitution, anti-Federalist opponents of ratification barely mentioned it but, by the mid 20th century, opponents of the Electoral College nearly convinced Congress to propose an amendment to scrap it--and today, more than a dozen states have joined in an attempt to hijack the Electoral College as a way to force a national popular vote for president.
What changed along the way, and does it matter? After all, the critics of the Electoral College simply want to elect the president the way we elect most other officials. Every state governor is chosen by a statewide popular vote. Why not a national popular vote for president?
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 asked themselves the same question, but then rejected a national popular vote along with several other possible modes of presidential election. The Virginia Plan--the first draft of what would become the new Constitution --called for "a National Executive... to be chosen by the National Legislature."
When the Constitutional Convention took up the issue for the first time, near the end of its first week of debate, Roger Sherman from Connecticut supported this parliamentary system of election, arguing that the national executive should be "absolutely dependent" on the legislature. Pennsylvania's James Wilson, on the other hand, called for a popular election. Virginia's George Mason thought a popular election "impracticable," but hoped Wilson would "have time to digest it into his own form." Another delegate suggested election by the Senate alone, and then the Convention adjourned for the day.
When they reconvened the next morning, Wilson had taken Mason's advice. He presented a plan to create districts and hold popular elections to choose electors. Those electors then would vote for the executive--in other words, an electoral college. However, with many details left out, and uncertainty remaining about the nature of the executive office, Wilson's proposal was voted down. A week later, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed election by state governors. This, too, was voted down, and a consensus began to build. Delegates did not support the Virginia Plan's parliamentary model because they understood that an executive selected by Congress would become subservient to Congress. A similar result, they came to see, could be expected from assigning the selection to any body of politicians.
There were other oddball proposals that sought to salvage congressional selection --for instance, to have congressmen draw lots to form a group that then would choose the executive in secret. By July 25, it was clear to James Madison that the choice was down to two forms of popular election: "The option before us," he said, "[is] between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people and an immediate appointment by the people."
Madison said he preferred popular election, but he recognized two legitimate concerns. First, people would tend toward supporting candidates from their own states, giving an advantage to larger states. Second, a few areas with higher concentrations of voters might come to dominate. Madison spoke positively of the idea of an electoral college, finding that "there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption" in such a system.
By Aug. 31, the Constitution nearly was finished--except for the process of electing the president. The question was put to a committee comprised of one delegate from each of the 11 states present at the Convention. That committee, which included Madison, created the Electoral College as we know it today. They presented the plan on Sept. 4, and it was adopted with minor changes.
It is found in Article II, Section 1: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the...