Several years ago, I was on a south central PA radio station talking about the Electoral College. After the interview I wrote some additional commentary which appears below. But first, as we approach the vote by the presidential electors on Monday, December 19, what do we know about the current situation with the likely vote. There is virtually no chance that Trump will not secure the 270 electoral votes necessary to elect him president. It does not matter what the Democratic electors do–37 Trump electors would have to refrain from voting for him. That is just not going to happen. There have been 157 faithless electors in American history, and in no case did they affect the outcome of the presidential election. In PA, Samuel Miles earned a dubious distinction in 1796. He became the first elector in American history to violate a pledge. He had pledged to vote for John Adams, the Federalist candidate, but instead voted for the Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson. In 1832, the state had faithless electors, but that involved the voting for vice president, not president.
What the drafters of the U.S. Constitution thought and did in 1787 has been always instructive. First was their aversion to electing directly the president, the demonstrable fear of the masses and democracy. Support for electing the president by popular vote was supported at the constitutional convention only by the delegates from Pennsylvania. A second consideration was their desire to ensure that the chief executive not be dominated by Congress—something the delegates at one point agreed to when they put the selection of the president into the hands of Congress but then reversed themselves by giving the job to state legislatures. The language in Article II is unambiguous: “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 . . . .”
For the most part, state legislatures picked the electors in the first three presidential elections. Thereafter, electors in the states were chosen by the winner-take-all method and in congressional districts by the popular vote until the district method was abandoned in most states after the outbreak of the Civil War.
Not much remarked upon in any discussion of the EC these days is the fact that some Founders believed that because the big states would put up sufficient candidates none of them would secure a majority of the EC, forcing the actual selection of a president into the House of Representatives. In the House, each state, regardless of size, has one vote in the selection process, which naturally would enhance the influence of small states in the selection of a president.
There is the question that moving to popular vote would mean that small state would be ignored in presidential elections. The important factor is not so much the big state/small state distinction, but which states are competitive. That list stretches to 12-15 states at the moment, irrespective of size, though certainly the states with the larger electoral counts see more of the candidates. But one thing is certain, no candidate will make the pledge that Nixon made in 1960 to visit every state in the union, which found him in some not so helpful places, while Kennedy campaigned in the vote-rich industrial states as the 1960 campaign came to a conclusion.