When it came to establishing the method for choosing our chief executive, the men meeting in Convention in Philadelphia struggled with trying to bring together thirteen states of widely varied size and populations. Many were adamantly opposed to a strong central government. The new country spread a thousand miles along the Atlantic coast with very little communication, which made campaigning for president very difficult. The founders were highly suspicious of the power of political parties.
The members of the Constitutional Convention considered and rejected three main ideas for electing the president. Election by Congress was rejected out of concern it would weaken the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches. Election by state legislatures was abandoned because it would strain the separation between the federal and state governments and also weaken the “federation.” The idea of a popular vote was tossed because without the ability to conduct a national campaign to educate all Americans, states would each likely vote for their “favorite son” and no one candidate would be able to achieve a national majority, or if they did, it would only be because they were from the most populous states, thereby detracting from the rights of the smaller states. Finally a “Committee of Eleven” came up with the idea of an Electoral College which was drawn from the Roman Republic “Centuries” system of one vote for every one hundred citizens. Presidential electors would be based on the same system created to ensure fairness in the Legislative Branch: Every state would receive two votes plus one additional vote for each member of the House of Representatives based on population.)
The system only lasted for four elections and proved unworkable with the rise of political parties resulting in a 73—73 electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800. The House of Representatives handed Jefferson the Presidency after 36 votes and a great deal of very unpleasant political wrangling. Political party loyalties appeared to have replaced state loyalties and therefore the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804 to avoid ties, and to create the opportunity for the President and Vice-President to be from the same party. An absolute majority of electoral votes was now required and only one vote was cast for each office. There was no serious discussion of abolishing the Electoral College and moving to a popular vote. Some historians have suggested that the bloodshed of the French Revolution left very little desire in America for a more direct democracy.
There have been a few statutory changes since 1804, but the primary organization and function of the Electoral College exists today as it was established 208 years ago. A few incidents have occurred during two centuries of presidential elections but none so significant as to lead to a widespread call for abandonment of the College of Electors. Only one time has the vote gone to the House of Representatives because a candidate failed to achieve a majority of votes. In 1824 Andrew Jackson easily won the popular vote and more electoral votes (99) than the other three candidates. 261 votes were required. Speaker of the House Henry Clay (who himself had received 37 votes,) urged his colleagues to vote for Adams. Jackson later decried a "Corrupt Bargain” had been made when President Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. Jackson got his revenge four years later easily defeating the incumbent Adams in both the popular and electoral elections.
Of course we all remember the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W. Bush when Florida and the Supreme Court gave Bush that state’s 25 electoral votes resulting in one more than the required 270 to win in the Electoral College. Only two other presidents were elected even though they lost the popular vote. In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden beat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by 250,000 votes but the Electoral College went to Hayes 185-184. The votes of 4 States were disputed. Congress referred the matter to the Electoral Commission which gave the decision to Rutherford B. Hayes.
Incumbent President Grover Cleveland [D] beat Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 election 5,534,488 to 5,443,892, but Harrison won 233 Electoral College votes to Cleveland’s 168. Four years later Cleveland came back and defeated the incumbent Harrison in both popular and Electoral College votes.
In 2008 I was honored to be elected as one of five Presidential Electors from the State of Utah and proudly cast my vote on behalf of Utah for John McCain who nevertheless lost the election by 10 million popular and 192 electoral votes. For more information about the Electoral College visit the official website: http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/