How Was The Electoral College Created? The Complicated History, Explained

If you did a junior civics class, you know how the electoral college works: delegates, whose numbers vary from state to state according to population (two senators, plus a proportional amount of members for the House of Representatives), decide the winner of a presidential election in their state on a winner-takes-all basis, at least in most states (both Maine and Nebraska use a different method). The number of votes from electors are the ones that actually count in electing a president, which is why they can be radically different from the popular vote; your vote on the street is sent to the electors to determine who "wins" the state outright. But what you might not know is how and why the electoral college was created in the first place.

The history of the electoral college in the United States involves everything from bribery to civil war, but the people creating it thought they were producing a system that guaranteed the people who knew what they were doing would make decisions, without relying exclusively on an oligarchy of elites (at least in theory). Even though election campaigning has evolved a lot in its time, from decorous seclusion to the baby-kissing and rampant rallying of today, the Electoral College has been one of the mainstays of the American political landscape, occasionally causing serious havoc. Political analysts around the world are fascinated by it; and if you look into its history, you begin to see why.

As the 2016 election comes to its peak, with either Trump or Clinton winning the White House, let's look back at the origins of the electoral college that will ultimately be responsible for their victory or failure.

It May Have Been Inspired By Ancient Rome & The Vatican

The system of electoral colleges is pretty unique in the modern world, but in history it actually has a reasonable amount of precedent. Americans watching the Vatican elect a new Pope every time the old one dies (or, in two instances, resigns) are actually watching one of the original electoral colleges in action. Instead of all the members of the Catholic clergy descending upon Rome to elect a new leader for the church, the Pope is actually elected by a "papal conclave," a highly secretive meeting between all of the Catholic cardinals. The machinations of the conclave (or college) of cardinals are highly secretive, involving cardinal representatives from more than 65 countries. The outside world only knows about the end result when, famously, a puff of white smoke is seen in a chimney above the Vatican. It may not have been a direct inspiration for the American policymakers who instituted electoral colleges in 1787, but they certainly weren't the first to come up with it.

The other precedents? Ancient Rome and the Holy Roman Empire. The Romans were intensely interested in protecting their voting rights (except for those of women, foreigners, and slaves), but their political system of election was a bit warped. Voting blocs were organized by wealth, and the wealthiest blocs had much more power; they held influence over the majority of the electoral college, while the least wealthy citizens, as a group, had only one voting bloc for all of them together. The aim was that people with the most amount of actual input in Rome got the most say in how it was ruled. (Hardly power to the people.) In the early medieval Holy Roman Empire, "electors" were princes from every German state who voted for the election of an Emperor. (This is the system that led candidates for the Emperor position to do things like stealing the dead Emperor's corpse to "convince" princes to vote in their favor.)

At The Constitutional Convention, Nobody Could Agree On What To Do

Hilariously, the committee that came up with the idea of electoral colleges in 1787 was actually a last-ditch attempt to get some kind of agreement. The Constitutional Convention of 1787, held in Philadelphia, was largely conducted in secret as they attempted to fiddle with the United States Constitution "to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." They wrangled out most matters over three months, but at the end of it they still hadn't figured out how people in the USA would elect a president, so they appointed a "Committee of Eleven" to figure it out. Less elegantly, the Eleven's official name was the Committee On Postponed Matters, which sounds far less like something you can feature on a villain's C.V.

It Was Designed To Stop Direct Popular Voting

The system of the electoral college was essentially designed to give the power of decision-making to officials who actually knew what they were doing, as opposed to allowing the popular vote to hold sway directly. Alexander Hamilton wrote in his famous Federalist Papers:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.

The end result was the famous part of the Constitution that states: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. ... The Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States."

The popular vote is still crucial, though; the electors choose the winners by who comes out on top in the polls. (A candidate may get 5 million votes and their opponent 4.9 million, but because they got the most, they win the state. Even if the numbers are close overall, a candidate can still have a landslide win with a huge amount of electoral college votes on their side.)

Electors Were Deliberately Isolated To Stop Bribery

Ever wonder why the electors in each state have to determine their votes in their home province and then send it off to the Senate to be counted? That isolationist policy was actually part of the original idea. It was thought that getting the electors from every state into one place to deliver their votes raised the possibility of collusion, bribery, bullying, behind-the-scenes dealings, and other matters that could be more easily avoided if everybody was separated and sent to their own separate corners to determine their votes. (Remember, this was in the era before the Internet or even speedy mail, so states trying to conspire with one another would have a much trickier time of it.)

It Had To Be Revamped When There Was A Tie

In 1800, people did what they were told: they voted for their party's choice for president, and sometimes ended up with a tie. The problem? The electoral college at the time was meant to cast one vote for the entire contest, with the idea that the winner took the presidency and the runner-up the office of the vice president. This led to the great dilemma of the 1800 election, where electoral colleges gave both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr the same amount of votes. What followed was one of the great crises in the history of American politics; there were accusations of hypocrisy, character assassinations, and warnings of civil war.

The Constitution at the time said deadlocked presidential elections should be resolved in the House of Representatives, but they kept tying too. It was only when Delaware decided to break the deadlock that Burr became VP and Jefferson ascended to the presidency. After that, electoral colleges were told they had to cast separate votes for the two offices, to avoid the same nonsense repeating itself.

In recent years, the most radical way in which the electoral college has swung the election has been the occasions when it delivered a president who didn't actually win the popular vote. This has happened four times: 1824, when John Quincy Adams didn't have the majority 131 college votes to win; 1876, when Rutherford Hayes won an extremely grubby election so complex an Electoral Committee had to be formed to sort it out; 1888, when Benjamin Harrison won the presidency but lost the popular vote by 90,000; and 2000, when Bush and Gore famously battled it out in a situation where Bush himself was the popular vote underdog. It's often closer than you might think; Mitt Romney in 2012 had 48 percent of the popular vote, but only 38 percent of the electoral colleges. It's a tough, complicated world, running for president.

Images: Velasquez, Juengling Kappes, US National Archives, Confederate States Of America, Rembrandt Peale/Wikimedia Commons