The truth is, the electoral college has never worked as intended by its creators. This is partly because they did not make clear what their intention was.
For several humid summer months in 1787, the Constitutional Convention could not agree on a good way to choose a president. James Madison’s notes show they debated the issue off and on from June to September, going in circles until, near the convention’s end, they came up with a way to leave the problem half-solved.2
Crucially, they did not decide whether to hold popular elections. In fact, the Constitution still does not guarantee us a right to vote for the president. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution merely says the electoral college’s members are chosen in each state “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.”
Thus, when George Washington was chosen as president in 1789, only six states held a popular vote, while elsewhere state legislators picked their electoral college members.3 It took decades to establish a firm nationwide custom of allowing ordinary citizens to vote in presidential elections.
Making things more complicated, the framers also set up a system for letting the House of Representatives pick the president when no candidate received an electoral-college majority. This has not happened often, but some scholars think the framers of the Constitution actually expected most elections to end that way.4
So who actually gets to pick the president—state legislators, voters, or Congress? The men who wrote the Constitution in 1787 considered and rejected each of those options, before choosing a combination of all three.
Writing later, Alexander Hamilton—who originally wanted the president to serve for life like an elected king5—published a rationale for this. In number 68 of The Federalist, Hamilton claimed the framers had come up with a clever way to balance different principles.
First, Hamilton wrote, “the people of America” obviously should get a direct say in choosing the president. But asking all the citizens across the nation to debate together would result in “tumult and disorder,” so the actual decision was entrusted to smaller groups of people elected by the people in each state. If no clear winner emerged from that group’s deliberation, then the House of Representatives would make sure the final choice had nationwide public support.6
Many Americans have since treated Hamilton’s claim as a description of how the electoral college was originally intended to work. Yet notice that the electoral college has never—not once—worked that way. Even in the first presidential elections, contrary to Hamilton’s description (and what some framers apparently hoped), citizens in many states were excluded from participating.7