Many voters have the misconception that elections are decided by the popular vote and that We the People pick our head of state. This is not technically true.
There is a complicated system, laid out in the Constitution, called the Electoral College (which is not a place or a school). In this system, voters cast votes for slates of electors who in turn vote for president. They are equal in size to the number of Senators and Representatives that the state is allotted. The electors usually – but not always – follow the popular vote for their state.
The College was created not because the founders did not trust the average voter, but as a compromise made by the founders to solve their problems with picking a president, none of which are relevant today.
First, the U.S. was still very state-centric; small states like Delaware were suspicious of large states like Virginia. The Electoral College, like the Great Compromise, gives extra weight to citizens of small states, since they get the automatic 2 electoral votes from their senators. Moreover, this was a compromise with slave states, which got the advantage from this system since it gave the South more power: slaves couldn’t vote, but they did help count toward the number of electors. The latter is obviously no longer relevant. The fact that slaves are no longer legal aside, do people mainly identify with their states as opposed to being “Americans?” When defining ourselves politically, we do so by party, ideology, and nation, not by the first-level administrative division we happen to live in.
There are plenty of arguments out there that the Electoral College “protects the small states.” So what? Does the typical voter care whether the people voting for their guy are from rural Alabama or downtown Chicago? We are in a globalized world, and this system isn’t even thinking nationally yet.
Second, the U.S. population was originally spread out over a sprawling coastland, with little in the way of transportation or communications infrastructure to aid in national campaigns. Electors were originally required to cast two votes, one from outside their home state. Plus, the well-educated electors would be more aware of the pros and cons of each candidate. Do people today have trouble knowing the details of politicians who live far away from them? With 24-hour news networks, social networks, and $2 billion campaigns, the idea that a modern voter will not know an out-of-state candidate is laughable.
Third, political parties were not yet present back then, making it hard for one person to get half the country’s support. The Electoral College stops pluralities by requiring a majority of electoral votes for anyone to be elected. The leader getting any less, or a tie, would result in the election being handed over to the Congress, as it was in 1800 and 1824. We now have established political parties to prevent pluralities. No splinter candidate since this guy a century ago has ever come close to disrupting our two-party system. Besides, the argument against a plurality is that someone with less than 50% support shouldn’t be president: exactly what happened in 2000, 1824, 1876, and 1888 (almost 10% of our presidents) because of the Electoral College.
Other arguments in favor of the Electoral College include the idea that it forces moderation, because third-party candidates do not fare well in elections. Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, but won not one single elector, since his supporters didn’t concentrate in any individual states. However, counter-examples like the founding of the Republican Party and the Bull Moose Party, and the spoiler effect of Nader in 2000, show that the Electoral College does not necessarily prevent upsets. Also, as long as a majority is required, not a plurality, no extreme candidate (by definition) will be able to garner enough votes to win.
Another common argument is that in a direct election, only the large cities will matter. This is not the case. Advertising cost/benefit analysis determines where candidates will campaign, and for most forms of advertising, costs are a function of market size, not density; it will cost the same to reach 100,000 rural voters as urban ones. It is in fact the Electoral College that makes politicians ignore certain areas and focus on others. Only swing states matter, and the majority of the country (including our four biggest cities and the entire rural Deep South) gets little attention.
Finally, the Electoral College is not a popular institution. If we are a country governed by popular sovereignty, this is an important point. Polls show 60% consistently prefer the popular vote, including over 70% of Democrats, over 60% of independent voters, and (for the first time) over half of Republicans. Due to the difficulty of passing a constitutional amendment, and the bias the amendment system has toward small states (requiring three-quarters of the state legislatures to ratify), this system has survived decades of unpopularity, and that isn’t right.