In contrast to the elections of state governors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, Americans do not cast their votes directly for the president of their choice in a presidential election. Instead, their ballots elect members of the Electoral College, an intermediary body, which will ultimately vote and decide the presidency."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."
This peculiar process dates back to the embryonic period of our nationhood. While there were several reasons behind the existence of the Electoral College, foremost in the minds of our Founding Fathers was a safeguard mechanism against the possible threat of a foreign-backed dictatorship or the reemergence of a pro-monarchist movement.
A naïve and unsophisticated populace spread over the vast tracts of the original thirteen colonies was presumed to be open to easy manipulation by regional or foreign influences, resulting in a movement that could swell out to neighboring areas before anyone in the capital, Philadelphia, would even be aware of. In such an event, the threat of coercion or simply the psychological effects of a perceived dominant figurehead would translate to a flawed presidential election.
Having just declared their independence from the clutches of the all-powerful British monarchy headed by King George III, the Founding Fathers were wary of exposing themselves to such a threat. There is also of course the matter of over 40,000 British soldiers, together with another 30,000 odd German mercenaries, that were present the country; a force significant enough to lay the groundwork for a future monarchist or separatist movement.
One must keep in mind that at the time, circa 1787, the fastest means of communications were horse-powered postal carriages, and newspapers were still considered a luxury item. Coupled with the low literacy rate of the young nation, the Founding Fathers felt that there was a need to create a buffer between the electorate and the act of choosing the leader of the government. The buffer came in the form of the 'electors', whose role was detailed in Article II, Section 1, of the United States Constitution.
There are several arguments, all perfectly valid and acceptable, that claimed the Electoral College was created to cement the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Some are also of the view that the members of the Electoral College would uphold the interest of smaller members of the confederation and thus, prevent the hijacking of their interests by larger and more populous states.
However, Alexander Hamilton wrote an essay that touched precisely on the subject. "The Mode of Electing the President" was written under the pseudonym of Publius and was published on March 14, 1788 in the New York Packet (The Federalist No. 68).
The following excerpts from the essay cast a very bright light on the reasoning behind the Electoral College.
"These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one querter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment."
"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."
The term 'electors' evolved into 'Electoral College' among the public sometime in the early 19th century to reflect the plurality of the grouping. It was subsequently entered into federal law in 1845. The composition of the College is based on the simple formula of one Elector for each member of the House of Representatives and one Elector for two Senators from each state (with the exception of the Federal District of Columbia, which is given three electoral votes following the passing of the 23rd Amendment in 1961). The College currently has 538 Electors, derived from 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 members of the Senate and 3 from the District of Columbia.
State legislatures were originally tasked with the appointment of the members of the Electoral College. However, effective from the 1868 presidential election, their selection was based on direct state level voting of a political party's candidates, comprised of individuals who are neither an appointed nor elected federal employee. The actual mechanics involved in the selection however, differs between each state and parties.
While theoretically, voting results should confer proportional Electoral College representations, 48 out 50 states in the country practice an extra-constitutional 'winner take all' system, where a winning party will be awarded with all of the state's Electoral College quota.
Traditionally, each state's Electoral College members would convene on the second Wednesday of December to cast their votes for the presidency. However, only electors from 21 states are Constitutionally-bound to vote according to the presidential election results. Historically, there have been 157 faithless electors (the term used for electors who voted against an election result) since independence, with the most recent one occurring in 2004. In the wake of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, more than 80% members of the Electoral College were unsuccessfully lobbied by several organizations to become faithless electors.
The votes are then tallied, counted and verified in Congress on January 6 the following year under the supervision of the incumbent Vice President (acting in his capacity as President of the U.S. Senate). A formal announcement will be made to declare the winner of the presidential election, on the condition that the winning candidate has managed to acquire a minimum of 270 electoral votes.
In the event of a tie, pursuant to the 12th Amendment, members of the House of Representatives would be tasked with the selection of the President, where each state is accorded a single vote to be cast immediately during the session.