The U.S. electoral college is a medieval relic. For several centuries, many political communities in Europe and the Americas used electors chosen from different territorial and political units to select a main magistrate. The United States is the only country in the world to still use the system to elect a president.
But it may nevertheless survive for a long time to come.
The electoral college goes back to the 11th century
The Founding Fathers did not invent the electoral college. It goes as far back as the 11th century, when it began to be used to elect Frankish, Carolingian, Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish kings. These princes were elected by their peers, gathered in colleges of electors formed by dukes, marquises, counts and bishops. Similar formulas were used to elect high magistrates in the city-republics of northern Italy, and abbots and abbesses in the Dominican and other monastic orders.
The Conclave of Cardinals to elect the Pope followed soon. At first, the higher-ranked cardinal-bishops voted, and were then supposed to win over the cardinal-priests and the cardinal-deacons. But this often led to discord between the “sounder part” (the bishops) and the “greater part” in votes.
A series of candidates refused to accept defeat, resulting in the self-appointment of “anti-popes” and schisms in the church. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory had to clarify that “not zeal to zeal, nor merit to merit, but solely numbers to numbers [of votes] are to be compared.”
Similarly, in the 12th century the Holy Roman-German emperor began to be elected by a college formed by a selection of members of the nobility and archbishops with different qualifications. Three times, the college ended with a split among the electors, producing pairs of emperors and anti-emperors in conflict.
One defeated candidate, Alphonse X the Wise, king of Castile and Leon, won most of the votes but not the support of sufficient qualified electors. He warned that the emperor would have real authority only if he was chosen by “the major part,” or a majority of votes.
Electoral colleges migrated to the Americas
Later, the college formula was used to select what constitution-makers Alexander Hamilton in the United States and Simon Bolivar in South America both called “kings with the name of presidents.”
After the electoral college was put into the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it was adopted — usually under the title “junta”— in Venezuela in 1819, Colombia in 1821, Mexico in 1824, Argentina in 1826, Bolivia, Chile and Peru in 1828, Brazil in 1834 (for the election of the regent), the Dominican Republic in 1844 and Cuba in 1902. It also was used in the Federal Republic of Central America in 1824 and in the countries that later separated from it: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
In most cases, the electoral college was designed so that every territorial unit, whether a state or a province, was given the same number of electors. That led to the election of several candidates who had lost the popular vote. In some cases, the system was designed so that when no candidate won a majority of electors, congress selected the president. That happened four times in Colombia, three in Bolivia, once in Mexico and once in Venezuela. Three times in Argentina, no candidate won a majority of electors, and so the college selected the winner in popular votes. The last electoral college outside the United States selected Argentina’s president in 1989.
Now only the United States uses the college.
Countries only get rid of it in a crisis
George W. Bush and Donald Trump both lost the popular vote but won a majority in the electoral college. Their backers argue that had the system been different, they could have won the popular vote, simply by campaigning differently and mobilizing more supporters in Republican-leaning states such as Texas or Florida. However, the Democrats could of course answer that they, too, would have campaigned so as to mobilize more votes in states leaning their way, such as California or New York.
It is not possible to know who would have won a direct election had the system been designed that way.
If the electoral college were replaced by direct popular election, not only electoral strategies but also the parties themselves would likely change as a result. In presidential elections by nationwide popular votes, campaigns would focus not on swing states but on more populous states. Overall voter turnout would probably be higher than it is today. Smaller states would no longer have such influence during primary season. Even the number of viable candidates might change, depending on how the new electoral rule were designed.
Given that magnitude of change, most current political actors would almost surely oppose any attempt to replace the electoral college with a post-medieval system.
In fact, virtually every time a Latin American country replaced the electoral college with the popular vote, the change came in response to a major political crisis. For instance, in Brazil, direct presidential elections were held for the first time after its monarchy was replaced by a republic in 1894. In Colombia, the change came after a military dictatorship was overthrown and replaced with a new constitution in 1910. In Mexico, direct presidential elections followed a revolution in 1917. In Venezuela, a free and fair election was held for the first time in a brief interlude between dictatorships in 1947. And Argentina undertook a major constitutional reform a few years after getting rid of a military dictatorship and establishing democracy in 1994.
Absent a major crisis, it’s unlikely to happen here.