Looking at the Electoral College seemed a pretty straightforward task, but it turned out to be quite daunting to find information on the reasons behind its establishment that weren’t unsourced opinion. I looked to the Constitution itself (Article II and the 12th Amendment, as codified in Title 3 of US Code) and found that only the what and how are covered, not the why. For why we need to go back to 1787 and the discussions that took place during the drafting of the constitution, and to Federalist #68, where an author assessed by historians to be Hamilton explained a bit about the benefits of the Electoral College. (Keep in mind that the Federalist Papers were propaganda in support of the new US constitution, seeking to influence the states at the time to choose to ratify.)
The basic gist is that the framers originally wanted the legislature to choose the president, which ended up being the running assumption for most of the constitutional convention. The intent was to ensure that the appointment of the president was free of foreign influence and domestic scandal or corruption. Eventually concerns over the presidency being too reliant upon or beholden to the legislature – thus negating the notion of separation of powers – led some members to advocate for a direct popular election. Since the framers were generally against direct democracy, thinking it akin to “mob rule” and worrying that the general populace didn’t have the requisite knowledge to make such important choices, and were similarly against the formation of political parties, there was a push for indirect election via a representative elector. This compromise allowed the public to have a say in the choice for president by choosing the electors, who would be suitably well informed and unbiased as to make an appropriate choice from among the candidates. This allayed concerns over individuals voting solely for local favorites and mitigated the original stated concerns over foreign influence and corruption. It also addressed a concern over states with smaller populations having a consequential voice in the selection. This was of principal concern in slave-owning states where the legal voting population was much smaller. These states got to count slaves as 2/5 or a resident for representative and electoral purposes. The Electoral College only lasted in its original form until 1804 when the 12th Amendment was adopted. By 1800 political parties had formed and the systems as originally designed caused problems.
There have been some minor modifications over time, but the Electoral College continues to function in more-or-less the same way as it did since the beginning of the 19th century. Arguments in favor of keeping the Electoral College have not changed much either, save for the deliberate downplay of the role of slavery in the original concept. Arguments still center on the problems with direct democracy and representation of smaller states. These arguments didn’t truly work by 1804, and they certainly don’t work now. With the formation of political parties there was little concern over the general populace not receiving information on candidates. As parties put forward their tickets any concern over local favorites necessarily diminished, as there was a push for nationwide campaigning by the partisans. Smaller states would surely have less of an impact in a direct popular vote, but what is the foundational reason that they shouldn’t have less of a say? The framers originally argued for selection by the congress, and determined that such a process would be problematic. There had been a suggestion that state governments would select the president, but the framers rejected that notion as not properly representative of popular will. Nothing can better represent popular will that a direct popular vote, and the formation of parties alleviates most concerns over the quality and qualifications of candidates (2016 notwithstanding). The only plausible reason for the system of electors representing states is to allow slave-owning states to better protect their interests. On the one hand that concept is considered by most Americans to be reprehensible by modern standards, and on the other hand there is no longer a practical need to ensure slave states’ equities are protected since slavery is no longer legal.
I have read and heard concerns over votes not counting under a direct popular vote, because candidates would only spend their time campaigning in the most populous cities and would ignore certain states entirely. This is nonsense. First, an individual vote would count whether the voter had been courted or not. Most people never attend a rally for a candidate and still manage to form opinions and register votes based on nationwide advertising by the parties and their surrogates. Next, it seems fair to point out that candidates do spend more time in the most populous areas, and in swing states 9those historically most likely to influence election outcomes). The Electoral College has not mitigated this development in any way. Why should it, in any case? If the politicians need to reach people, then they will go to where the people are. Sparsely populated states are not and would not be under a popular vote system) negatively impacted by this, as they still have access to information and can individually vote. The land doesn’t get a say, just the people. The current system gives far too much weight to sparely populated states by giving them a number of electors equal to the total of their representatives and senators. The all-or-nothing manner in which all but two states allocates their electors is also harmful to representing the popular will, and ensures that certain votes do not count. Specifically, absentee ballots are not counted at all unless their total number could influence the state’s outcome. This seldom occurs, so absentee ballots are seldom counted at all. A popular vote would necessitate counting each citizen’s vote, and would ensure that outcomes were not influence by vast expanses of unoccupied land.
Direct democracy as argued against by the founders and by some still today was previously understood to deal with voting on legislative issues. A direct democratic election for the presidency doesn’t carry the same outfalls regarding “mob rule” because the president doesn’t make laws. That is the job of senators and representative, who are themselves directly elected. State and local legislators are directly elected, as are state and local executive positions (mayors and governors). The president is the sole exception. There seems little reason to continue such an exception.