Tomorrow, the battle for the presidency reaches its dramatic conclusion. And while a split between the popular and electoral vote is highly unlikely, the crusade to change the system will drag on. Those who argue most vociferously for scrapping the Electoral College — let’s call them scrappers — claim the current approach is rooted in outdated values. They insist that relying on the national popular vote would be simpler, more modern, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, those are the same arguments that gave us the leisure suit.
The Electoral College was intended, first and foremost, to retain a pre-eminent role for states in choosing their president. The framers believed that states mattered, empowering them with equal status in the Senate regardless of population. They didn’t oppose popular will outright; members of Congress and state “electors” have been chosen by direct vote for over 200 years. Yet they sought a system that would discount lopsided statewide votes and regional candidates — which the Electoral College very much did in 1888. That year, Grover Cleveland lost the presidency despite a popular vote margin that came from landslide victories across the post-Civil War South.