Looking to the Design of the Electoral College
Of the institutions designed by the Framers, the electoral college is the one that deserves the least amount of defense if one's defense is predicated on assumptions of the genius of said framers.
Alexander Hamilton wrote, in Federalist 66 regarding the House of Representatives and the election of the president:
The same house will be the umpire in all elections of the President, which do not unite the suffrages of a majority of the whole number of electors; a case which it cannot be doubted will sometimes, if not frequently, happen. The constant possibility of the thing must be a fruitful source of influence to that body.
In simple terms, the electoral college was designed in such a way that if no candidate for president receives an absolute majority of the electoral votes, then the House of Representatives would select the president. As per the 12th Amendment (which alters some very similar language from Article II, Section 2):
The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.
Now, Hamilton’s anticipation for the system was, as quoted and bolded above, that this process would happen “sometimes, if not frequently.” But, in fact, that is not what happened. The entire number of times that the US House of Representatives has chosen the president is all of two (1800 and 1824), and one of those (1800) was because the Framers made a mistake that the 12th Amendment had to fix.
To wit: in 1800 there was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. The original version of the electoral college allowed the electors to vote for two persons with the presidency awarded to the first place winner (assuming an absolute majority of electoral votes) and the vice presidency to the second place winner. The tie in 1800 revealed both a problem with the process as designed, but also threw the election into the House.
So, it only took four elections for the system to be revealed as flawed. The 12th Amendment fixed the president/vice president problem, but the system still never worked the way Hamilton described in the quotation above, as the only other time that the House had the chance to choose the president was in a four-way race in 1824.
Further, if one reads Hamilton’s description of the process in Federalist 68 one sees that the original plan for the electoral college was that it, not those who selected the electors, would be choosing the president (or, likely, simply nominating candidates for the House to choose from):
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
While we use the electors are mere messengers of the preference of a given state’s plurality of voters (save for Maine and Nebraska, which uses congressional districts as well), this was not what they were intended to be. They were intended to select the president themselves, voting in their states (without likely a lot of communication with other electors in other states) and hence likely voting for a range of regional candidates, which theoretically would have led to the House choosing the president “sometimes, if not frequently.” Of course, history demonstrates that it never worked in such a fashion.
Further, and this is worth underscoring: while we treat the electors like messengers, the constitutional bottom line remains that they have the actual power to elect the president, not the citizens of the US.
Of the institutions designed by the Framers, the electoral college is the one that deserves the least amount of defense if one’s defense is predicated on assumptions of the genius of said framers. In other words, if one is predisposed to defend the electoral college because one thinks that it serves some central purpose in the constitutional order of the Framers one needs to reevaluate one’s position. The electoral college has never functioned the way the Framers thought it would.
The above is part (and there is more*) of the reason why I have come to the conclusion that it is incorrect to assert that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in regards to the way we elect the president.
*Two quick additional ones:
1) A philosophical one: if one believes in liberty and political equality, then one person, one vote ought to be the basic rule, especially in the process of selecting the one truly national office that we have.
2) A practical one: the current system is such that we start each electoral cycle knowing how a vast majority of the states will vote, and therefore the contests become focused on a handful of states (e.g., Florida). This transforms (and distorts) what ought to be a national election into a regionalized one. Why anyone wants this to be the case (apart from the citizens in battleground states) is beyond me (especially the libertarian-minded who extol the notion of individual liberty as the central theme of their political theory).