In a few weeks, 538 "electors," most them largely unknown to us, will assemble - not together, but in their respective state capitals - to cast their votes for the 46th President of the United States. On January 6, their votes will be tallied and certified by Congress. And, if all goes as expected, everything will indeed be exactly as expected.
The electoral college is by custom quite predictable but remains potentially unpredictable. It usually exactly reflects not the judgments of the individual electors but the popular vote of the constituency that elected them, while simultaneously extremely distorting the effect of the total popular vote of the nation. We rightly recognize the President as uniquely representing the nation as a whole, but choose him or her in a way which at best distorts and at worst (as in 2000 and 2016) negates the actual vote of the actual nation.
To be fair, this was not how it was originally intended to work. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton could barely contain his satisfaction with the system the constitution had created: "If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages; the union of which was to be desired."
However one judges Hamilton's assessment, it was a clever solution to the conundrum of how to elect a president in the late 18th century - in a geographically spread-out union of semi-sovereign states with no political parties to organize campaigns and nominate candidates. It was, of course, the development of political parties which fatally undermined the original system. The founders' ideological blinders on this subject, their obsessive fear of factional politics upending the public interest, which the tragic history of pervious republics seemed to warn about, prevented them from recognizing the necessity of political parties in a large representative republic. Hence Hamilton's (historically unwarranted) pride in what the electoral college could guarantee: "The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. 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. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."
If nothing else, the past four years have proven the utter falsehood of that expectation!
In the absence of political parties, perhaps the electoral college might have worked out as planned. Electors would function, in effect, more like nominating conventions, surfacing several distinguished figures from the different sections of the country, from the top five of whom the House of Representatives would finally choose a president. That system collapsed, of course, almost immediately, once electors became creatures of national political parties, which organized the election and provided candidates for a genuinely national contest.
This almost immediately required the 12th Amendment to remedy the most dramatic flaw in the original arrangement by providing separate ballots for president and vice president and reducing the number of candidates the House of Representatives might occasionally have to choose from. Other than that, however, the electoral college itself has not been subsequently altered.
My first awareness of the electoral college came on Election Night in 1956 when, as a mere eight-year old, I sat in the living room with my parents as they watched the election returns. Every time results were announced, the latest popular vote total was accompanied by an electoral vote count. Confused, I asked my father what an electoral vote was. I don't remember exactly how he answered, but I remember that I was still confused. After the next election, Theodore White (The Making of the President 1960) praised the foresight of the Founders, who "invented the device of the Electoral College, which, while preserving free citizen choice, prevents it from degenerating into the violence that can accompany the narrow act of head-counting." In addition to providing such a definitive outcome, the Electoral College was widely lauded when I was studying political science for its stabilizing effect by reinforcing the two-party system. Obviously, none of this was part of the original plan. These unintended consequences of the system should serve to remind us that any changes will also have unintended consequences, which may or may not be beneficial.
But as long as the electoral college just distorted the vote but still awarded the presidency to the winner of the popular vote, such academic considerations remained academic. The 1968 election posed the possibility of it ending up in the House, but that did not happen, and we continued sailing along until the disastrous election of 2000 - the first time the popular vote winner lost the election since 1888. Then it happened again in 2016. And it became clear that it could possibly become a regular feature, that contemporary party realignments and political polarization had produced a bizarre geographic division which was unjustly weighting the electoral college in favor of the Republican party at the very time when that party was becoming increasingly incapable of attracting the votes of a majority of Americans.
The only foolproof way to solve the problem of the popular vote winner losing in the electoral college would be to amend the constitution to abolish the electoral college and establish a single national popular election for president (with all the attendant practical problems and unforeseen consequences that would entail). Obviously, the likelihood of that happening any time soon is minimal.
On the other hand, one could radically reduce the likelihood of such outcomes by reducing the electoral college's distorting effects simply by changing the way the states choose electors. At present, in 48 states electors run "at-large" as a single "winner take all" slate. Maine and Nebraska, in contrast, choose electors by congressional districts, with only the two extra electors being chosen statewide. This still distorts the vote, but much less so. In a winner- take-all system, it would make no sense for a Democrat to waste time and resources campaigning in Nebraska. But this year the Democrat carried the Omaha congressional district, winning one Nebraska electoral vote. Unlike the more typical experience of, say, a Democrat in Tennessee or a Republican in California, a Democrat's vote in Omaha actually mattered. Of course, it diminishes any single state' electoral influence if it adopts this system. In any case, it is unlikely to be adopted by states where the party that usually carries the state also party has effective control of the state legislature.
That leaves a third way to overcome the distorting effect of the electoral college, which in some ways would be the best way for all concerned. That would be for the parties to learn (or, rather, relearn) to broaden their appeal to people in different parts of the country. As long as we continue with the present system, if Democrats want to win 270 votes they will increasingly need to learn how to talk to people outside the more densely populated cities and suburbs. If they can start talking again to people in the more "rural" regions, any number of states might be put in play. And, of course, if the Democrats start broadening their appeal enough to diminish the Republicans' advantage in the electoral college, then the Republicans would also start having to broaden their appeal, which intriguingly this election suggests they may actually have been doing as is evident in their increased shares of the Latino vote and the African-American vote.
For the present, constitutional tinkering with the electoral college remains very unlikely. Political realignment, on the other hand, is always possible when political parties broaden their appeal and start having something to offer to new constituencies.
If there is any 21st-century merit in the electoral college, it is precisely in how it may make our increasingly narrowly based political parties start getting out of their respective cultural bubbles.