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More specifically; how did the electoral college get to the point where the vote of the people who make it up is determined strictly by popular vote?

Did it have anything to do with technology allowing for the accurate collection of votes from the entire populous?

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  • There's a great writeup of it here.
    – Bobson
    Jan 31 '14 at 14:35
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In the Federalist Papers #68, Hamilton, et. al., argued:

"Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States"

Put another way, Hamilton was afraid a demagogue could win over the hearts of the people of one state, and use that to trick everybody. By ensuring that the entire nation have a voice, and that the common mob at least had a buffer, the electoral college was considered an improvement over vulgar popular rule.

To date, there have been only four elections wherein the electoral college overruled the popular vote. (And I'm going to do this from memory):

  • 1824, in which John Quincy Adams was able to throw the vote to the House. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, and beat Adams 4 years later.
  • 1876, in which Samuel J. Tilden proved he was a man who loved America (or at least the South) more than his own ambition. When ballots were rigged in dispute in South Carolina, and yes, Florida, Tilden brokered a deal with Hays ending Yankee imperialism Reconstruction in exchange for his concession.
  • 1888, in which the once and future Grover Cleveland actually had more votes than Benjamin Harrison, but who nonetheless had fallen afoul of the New York machine that originally got him elected.
  • 2000, in which Gore was famously Bush-whacked in Florida, but the real winner was in fact any boy named 'Chad'.

As you can see, twice the 'loser' went on to win again. And, both Tilden and Gore were able to influence policy, and clearly robbed the victor of a mandate. The point of the electoral college is to ensure that all voices in all states get heard, and even when a perverse result or a faithless elector occurs.

Finally, in 1872, the Electoral College prevented what could have been a crisis had more votes gone to Greeley. Greeley went mad after the election but before the electoral college met. Mercifully, he died shortly thereafter, but the cautionary tale remained - the electoral college is a safeguard against the popular vote.

It can go wrong, and the electoral college is supposed to protect against it. It ensures everyone is heard, and it adds a sense of 'thought' to the process. Is it perfect? Heck no! It is downright undemocratic - but that is the point the founders were trying to achieve.

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There's a quote about this on the Wikipedia page

Some delegates, including James Wilson and James Madison, preferred popular election of the executive. Madison acknowledged that while a popular vote would be ideal, it would be difficult to get consensus on the proposal given the prevalence of slavery in the South:

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. 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 Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.

The Convention approved the Committee's Electoral College proposal, with minor modifications, on September 6, 1787. Delegates from the small states generally favored the Electoral College out of concern that the large states would otherwise control presidential elections.

Also at issue was not so much the accuracy of the vote as the timeliness of it. In the days where travel and news was all horse-powered, nation-wide campaigns were impossible, and so it wasn't practical for the population as a whole to decide between candidates. Instead, the goal was for

the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party. source

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