Michael D. Schaffer
is a former book review editor of the Inquirer and has a doctorate in American history from Yale University
Like Halley's Comet or 17-year locusts, the Electoral College appears at regular intervals, does its thing, and disappears until the next time.
This has been going on since 1788. Every four years, as Article II of the Constitution of the United States directs, electors chosen by the voters gather in their states to select a president and then disperse. They will do it again tomorrow to make Donald Trump the president, unless at least 37 electors decide unexpectedly to dump Trump.
The college usually emerges from its four-year dormancy trailing a musty whiff of something kept in the attic for a long time, but this year some people are saying it smells like something that should be thrown out. They are miffed that Trump is poised to win the presidency, even though Hillary Clinton is beating him by more than 2.8 million votes in the popular tally.
It will be the fifth time the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency. Those five elections - the contests of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 - include some of the most bitter in our history.
Not surprisingly, grousing about the Electoral College has been a constant in presidential politics. Over the course of two centuries, the college has been the target of more than 700 repeal or reform proposals, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. None of those proposals has gotten anywhere.
Should we scrap the college? A lot of Democrats would say yes and a lot of Republicans would say no. A historian would say that we should take a look at how we got here before we decide anything.
The leaders of the young United States wanted the authority of the president to derive from the people, but couldn't quite bring themselves to trust the people with the choice. Better to hand it over to a body of the best informed, most sensible citizens in each state: people you could trust to do the right thing.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 opted for indirect election, having the voters choose not the president, but a group of electors who would choose the president. They hoped thereby to keep presidential contests free of tampering, partisan bickering, and foreign influence - all issues raised by this year's campaign.
Like much that emerged from the Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College - first proposed to the convention by Philadelphia lawyer James Wilson - was a balancing act.
Aside from answering fears about having the people elect the president, it assured the small states that they would have their say in choosing a president. And it guaranteed the electoral clout of the slave states by basing the number of each state's electors on the size of its congressional delegation.
Because the Constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in determining representation, the South would not have to worry about being outvoted by Northern states with larger white populations. Virginia's James Madison, one of the leading proponents of the electoral system, laid out the brutal calculus to the convention:
"The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections."
In The Federalist Papers, the series of essays by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay supporting adoption of the Constitution, Hamilton declared the electoral scheme to be "at least excellent" if not perfect.
Hamilton presented a detailed case for the electoral system in "Federalist No. 68." He argued that because the electors would meet in their own states rather than one place, it would be hard for an election to be rigged (to borrow a phrase currently in vogue). Members of Congress and anyone else holding a federal office would be banned from being electors, further protecting the integrity of the process. The electors "will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations," Hamilton argued, sparing the country the "tumult and disorder" that could attend a presidential election.
One of Hamilton's great fears was foreign influence in a presidential election - eerily prescient in light of recent headlines. He warned of "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?" The transitory nature of the electoral body, coming together for a very brief time and immediately dispersing, would make it impossible for a foreign power to tamper with the electors "beforehand to prostitute their votes."
It didn't take long after the Constitution was ratified for the electoral system to reveal some flaws.
In 1796, it yielded a president, John Adams, and a vice president, Thomas Jefferson, from rival parties. In 1800, it produced a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr that the House of Representatives had to break. That mess led to passage of the 12th Amendment, which requires electors to vote separately for president and vice president.
The 12th Amendment didn't change the nature of the college, but the rise of political parties did. The Revolutionary generation professed to despise partisanship and the framers of the Constitution accorded no place in the document to political parties. The electors were to make up their own minds about whom they would elect, without instruction from anyone.
For all the founders' antiparty rhetoric, political parties began to organize almost instantly after the Constitution was ratified. As their influence grew, electors came to be expected to vote for tickets proposed by the parties instead of seeking out the best candidates on their own. Now, electoral votes are awarded to presidential tickets on a winner-take-all basis in every state but Maine and Nebraska, and electors are expected to vote for their party's nominee.
That struck one prominent jurist in the middle of the 20th century as a perversion of what the framers of the Constitution intended.
"No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson declared in a 1952 opinion.
Jackson was dissenting from the high court's decision in Ray v. Blair that a political party can demand that its electors promise to vote for the candidate the party wants.
Partisan politics had ruined the Electoral College, Jackson believed. "Electors, although often personally eminent, independent, and respectable, officially became voluntary party lackeys and intellectual nonentities," he wrote.
Jackson favored abolishing the college in favor of direct election, which he thought would be "gain for simplicity and integrity of our government processes."
"As an institution the Electoral College suffered atrophy almost indistinguishable from rigor mortis," Jackson declared, but to his chagrin, the college was not dead. It just looked that way.