The Electoral College isn’t a term in the US Constitution. It’s a construction that allows us to envision the collective body of electors who choose the president. In reality, it’s not a collective body at all; it consists of 538 individuals in state houses across the country. The basic idea was that the average American wouldn’t have the wisdom and knowledge to pick a good person for president, but they could probably be trusted to pick a good person who could pick a good person.
I know that the anti-democratic tomfoolery of the last 20 years means that most Americans are pretty well-acquainted with the win-loss record of the Electoral College Fightin’ Oligarchs. However, a little bit of history could be illustrative here because the Electoral College has never worked.
The Election of 1796
In the original conception of the electoral process, a bunch of learned White men would all run for president. The plebeians (the White ones) would vote for some other learned White men from their region. Folks in Georgia would pick educated folks from Georgia, Virginia voters would pick educated Virginians, etc. Those educated men who actually understood mercantilism and tariff policy and the XYZ affair would get together and choose the best candidate for president.
They would actually pick two people with no distinction between president and vice-president. The guy who got the most electoral votes would be president. The runner-up would be vice-president. (It’s important to keep in mind that, at the time, the vice-president was just a guy waiting around for the president to get cholera and not a governing partner).
This functioned just fine in 1788/9 and 1792. Every elector voted unanimously for George Washington. They split their second votes a few ways, resulting in John Adams coming in second and being vice-president.
So, the election of 1796 was the first truly contested presidential election in the US, and the Electoral College face-planted immediately. Political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, popped up out of Electoral College necessity. They were loosely-aligned factions but they needed to coordinate in order to game the electoral system. The plan was for the Federalists to all vote for John Adams for president, which would make him president.
Then, they would have all but a few Federalists vote for their preferred vice-president, Charles Pinckney. That would give him the second-most electoral votes and make him vice-president. The Democratic-Republicans (the Democratic Party in its infancy) supported Thomas Jefferson. They had a similar plan to elect Jefferson as the president and a second choice as vice-president. They had a really difficult time communicating, though.
Federalists all voted for Adams and most of them voted for Pinckney as their second choice. If they had stayed united, Pinckney would have become vice-president. It’s a good thing they didn’t stay united, though, because a few of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans also voted for Pinckney as their second choice. If the Federalists had been able to stick to their scheme, their votes plus a few Democratic-Republican votes would have accidentally made Pinckney the second president of the United States.
In short, the Electoral College almost accidentally elected the wrong guy.
The Election of 1800
Despite almost electing a president nobody wanted to be president, the Electoral College Stormin’ Morons took the field again in 1800.
Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans faced off against incumbent Adams’ Federalists again. Each party attempted the same scheme. The Democratic-Republican electors would all vote for Jefferson. Then, all but one of them would vote for Aaron Burr. Therefore, Jefferson would be president, and Burr would be VP. Federalists chose incumbent John Adams and Charles Pinckney.
The Federalists pulled off their plan successfully, but the Democratic-Republicans fumbled (Democrats in disarray!). The Democratic-Republicans won a clear popular vote majority and an electoral college majority, but every elector voted for both Jefferson and Burr. Somebody missed their assignment. That meant Burr and Jefferson each got 73 electoral college votes, and nobody was elected president.
The election was then thrown to the House of Representatives, where each state is granted one vote. A simple majority of states wins. But, the lame duck House of Representatives would be doing the voting, and it was dominated by Federalists who had already lost their reelections. They absolutely hated Jefferson and distrusted Burr.
The election in the House went round and round for 35 ballots. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson and delivered the presidency to him on the 36th ballot. This is the election from the Hamilton song.
The election of 1800 was such a snafu that we amended the constitution. The 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, established that electors would cast one vote specifically for president and one specifically for vice-president. No more of this runner-up nonsense.
The new system, the one we still use, worked for a little while but foolishness is in the Electoral College’s DNA, and genetics is destiny.
The Electoral College Plutocrats took the field again in 1824 and the kicker broke his leg on the opening kickoff. In true Democratic Party fashion, the Democratic-Republicans were the only political party and still made a mess of things. They fielded four presidential candidates on a regional basis. John Quincy Adams represented the North, and Andrew Jackson represented the South. Henry Clay and William Harris Crawford were also from the South and split Jackson’s support. (They wouldn’t be Democrats if they weren’t rapid-firing into their own feet).
In the election, Andrew Jackson won about 41% of the popular vote to QAdams’ 31%. In electoral college votes, that’s 99 to 84, respectively. 131 electoral votes were needed to win, and the other Southerners won 78 (spoilers!).
Since neither Jackson nor QAdams had a majority of electors, the election went to the House of Representatives where Henry Clay was both a candidate and the Speaker of the House. I suppose he didn’t think he could win for himself, so Clay met with Adams for three hours. After that, Clay whipped the House votes and Adams was elected on the first ballot. QAdams then appointed Henry Clay as Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson called this the “Corrupt Bargain,” and it happened on this day in 1824.
John Quincy Adams is the only president to lose both the Electoral College and the popular vote, but there have been four other presidents elected who lost the popular vote. Additionally, there are 14 other elections in which the president won the electoral college and a plurality of the popular vote but failed to win an actual majority of the popular vote.
In every other election in the United States, the person who wins a plurality of votes wins. In several states, candidates go to a runoff election in order to win a true majority. Not so with the president (the person who gets nuclear launch codes). They teach some funny math at Electoral College.