Choosing how to choose the president was not easy. By some calculations, the Framers voted on this issue 60 times before the Convention finally settled on the Electoral College system that we find in the unamended Constitution. Madison, in his typically understated way, later recalled that “the modes of appointment proposed were various.” Various, indeed. The ideas they considered include: letting Congress choose the president (either voting as a single body or giving each house a separate vote), or giving the power to the Lower House alone, to the Upper House alone, to the people through direct popular election, to the state legislatures, and even to the states’ executives. Of course, they also considered the possibility that the President might be chosen by electors—a select group of people who are chosen for no other purpose than to fulfill the single function of choosing the President. But if the Framers decided on that option, then who should choose the electors? It was suggested that the electors be chosen by state legislatures, by state executives, and by the people at large. They even considered an amusing process whereby a small group of electors would be selected from members of the national legislature by lot, and then, like a College of Cardinals choosing a pope, the electors would make their selection immediately and without disbanding, before there could be any danger of outside influences.
The elaborate mode that they finally adopted after months of disagreement and vacillation—that state legislatures would choose how to select a number of electors equal to the number of that state’s Senators and Representatives, and those electors would choose the president—became, for a short time in our history, a popular favorite. According to Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68, the Electoral College was “almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” After the delegates finally settled on this system, Madison said that the decision “seemed to give pretty general satisfaction to the members.”
Unfortunately, the Electoral College failed to give general satisfaction soon after the Constitution was ratified and ever since. The Twelfth Amendment (adopted when the government was only 15 years old) memorializes the first time that the country felt impelled to “fix” the presidential selection process. Since that time, hundreds of amendments have been proposed which were designed to repair or eliminate the Electoral College—more proposals than for any other purpose. And since early in the twentieth century, polls have consistently shown that large proportions of Americans would prefer to abolish the Electoral College and switch to popular elections when choosing the president. So, if popular elections seem like the obvious solution to people today, then why was the question so vexing for the Framers, and why did they ultimately choose this Rube Goldberg contraption instead? Only by following their lengthy and sometimes tedious debates on the subjects of presidential selection, reeligibility, tenure, and impeachment—and their many reasons for rejecting the innumerable possible alternatives—does the Electoral College make any sense at all.