Today the members of the Electoral College gathered in each of the 50 state capitals (and the District of Columbia officially signed their ballots for President of the United States. On January 6, 2013, these ballots will be counted by the Presiding Officer of the Senate (the Vice-President of the United States--alas, Joseph Biden) and the winner officially announced. Two weeks later the winner (alas, Barack Obama) takes the oath of office.
So how did we conceive such an unusual system of electing our chief executive?
It resulted from disagreements and subsequent compromises that took place at what is now call the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. At that time, the United States functioned under its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Because of frustration over the inability to the government address the nation's problems, the Congress called for a convention to suggest amendments to the Articles of Confederation. The states elected delegates to meet during the summer of 1787. They ended up writing an entirely new constitution.
The basis of the the new government was the so-called Virginia Plan, drafted by Virginia delegate James Madison. Its called for a two house legislature in both of which representation was based upon the population of each state. Only the lower house would be elected by the voters in each state. The upper house would be elected by the lower house. Then both houses together elected the President, who was eligible for only one term.
The debate at the convention about the executive branch had to disentangle a number of issues.Should the executive be a unity or a plurality? Should the executive be elected by the Congress or the people? Should the executive be eligible for reelection? Should the executive enjoy appointment powers?
James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania (and later appointed a Justice on the first Supreme Court) proposed a unitary executive because it would provide the "most energy, dispatch, and responsibility" to the office. Elbridge Gerry (MA.) and Edmund Randolph (VA) opposed this idea, preferring that a council be annexed to the executive, calling a unitary executive the "fetus of a monarchy."
After postponing this question, the delegates turned to method of election.
Wilson argued for election by the people at large. He pointed to the example of the New York and Massachusetts state governments. He added, "The objects of choice in such cases must be persons whose merits have general notoriety."
Roger Sherman (CT) suggested election by the legislature. Since the chief executive's job is simply to carry out the laws enacted by the legislature, the legislature should possess the power of selection. Moreover, according to Sherman, "An independence of the Executive on the supreme Legislature, was in his opinion the very essence of tyranny if there was any such thing." The following day he also suggested that the national legislature have the authority of remove the chief executive at will.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania retorted that the legislative, executive, and judicial powers should be kept as separate at possible. Only this separation of power would protect against tyranny.
Other delegates suggested the election of the chief executive by the legislature would lead to corrupt bargains and backroom deals prior to every election.
After what proved to me temporary agreement on term of office and some other questions, Wilson suggested a compromised of sorts on how to elect the chief executive. He suggested that each state be divided into districts, in which voters would choose elector of the "executive magistrate." He left open the question of the number of districts and electors. Wilson argued that this method would give citizens more confidence in the executive than election by the national legislature. The delegates, however, voted down Wilson's proposal. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland voted in favor.
Only later did the delegates revisit the idea. They modified his plan by delegating to the states the method of choosing Presidential electors and apportioning the number of electors based upon the number of congressmen and senator to which it is entitled.
In the first few Presidential elections, the state legislatures reserved for themselves the power to chose that state's electors. After the rise of political parties and the spread of universal white male suffrage, the state legislatures began delegating this task to the political parties. Today, prior to each Presidential election cycle, each party in every state names its slate of presidential electors, usually at the state party convention. After the popular vote is tallied, only the electors of the party that won the popular vote will case their official "electoral college" votes in their respective state capitals. That happened today.