Five times in history, presidential candidates have won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. This has led some to question why Americans use this system to elect their presidents in the first place.

Among the many thorny questions debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, one of the hardest to resolve was how to elect the president. The Founding Fathers debated for months, with some arguing that Congress should pick the president and others insistent on a democratic popular vote.

Their compromise is known as the Electoral College.

What Is the Electoral College?

The system calls for the creation, every four years, of a temporary group of electors equal to the total number of representatives in Congress. Technically, it is these electors, and not the American people, who vote for the president. In modern elections, the first candidate to get 270 of the 538 total electoral votes wins the White House.

The Electoral College was never intended to be the “perfect” system for picking the president, says George Edwards III, emeritus political science professor at Texas A&M University.

“It wasn’t like the Founders said, ‘Hey, what a great idea! This is the preferred way to select the chief executive, period,’” says Edwards. “They were tired, impatient, frustrated. They cobbled together this plan because they couldn’t agree on anything else.”

Electoral College: A System Born of Compromise

At the time of the Philadelphia convention, no other country in the world directly elected its chief executive, so the delegates were wading into uncharted territory. Further complicating the task was a deep-rooted distrust of executive power. After all, the fledgling nation had just fought its way out from under a tyrannical king and overreaching colonial governors. They didn’t want another despot on their hands.

One group of delegates felt strongly that Congress shouldn’t have anything to do with picking the president. Too much opportunity for chummy corruption between the executive and legislative branches.

Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in 1787 drafting The Great Compromise, a plan for representation in Congress. (Credit: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in 1787 drafting The Great Compromise, a plan for representation in Congress.

Another camp was dead set against letting the people elect the president by a straight popular vote. First, they thought 18th-century voters lacked the resources to be fully informed about the candidates, especially in rural outposts. Second, they feared a headstrong “democratic mob” steering the country astray. And third, a populist president appealing directly to the people could command dangerous amounts of power.

Out of those drawn-out debates came a compromise based on the idea of electoral intermediaries. These intermediaries wouldn’t be picked by Congress or elected by the people. Instead, the states would each appoint independent “electors” who would cast the actual ballots for the presidency.

Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise

But determining exactly how many electors to assign to each state was another sticking point. Here the divide was between slave-owning and non-slave-owning states. It was the same issue that plagued the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives: should or shouldn’t the Founders include slaves in counting a state’s population?

In 1787, roughly 40 percent of people living in the Southern states were enslaved Black people, who couldn’t vote. James Madison from Virginia—where enslaved people accounted for 60 percent of the population—knew that either a direct presidential election, or one with electors divvied up according to free white residents only, wouldn’t fly in the South.

“The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States,” said Madison, “and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”

The result was the controversial “three-fifths compromise,” in which three-fifths of the enslaved Black population would be counted toward allocating representatives and electors and calculating federal taxes. The compromise ensured that Southern states would ratify the Constitution and gave Virginia, home to more than 200,000 slaves, a quarter (12) of the total electoral votes required to win the presidency (46).

Did you know? For 32 of the United States’ first 36 years, a slave-holding Virginian occupied the White House (John Adams from Massachusetts was the exception).

Not only was the creation of the Electoral College in part a political workaround for the persistence of slavery in the United States, but almost none of the Founding Fathers’ assumptions about the electoral system proved true.

The Signing of the Constitution
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
The signing of the Constitution of the United States at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

For starters, there were no political parties in 1787. The drafters of the Constitution assumed that electors would vote according to their individual discretion, not the dictates of a state or national party. Today, most electors are bound to vote for their party’s candidate.

And even more important, the Constitution says nothing about how the states should allot their electoral votes. The assumption was that each elector’s vote would be counted. But over time, all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) passed laws to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote count. Any semblance of elector independence has been fully wiped out.

The Founders also assumed that most elections would ultimately be decided by neither the people nor the electors, but by the House of Representatives. According to the Constitution, if no single candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes, the decision goes to the House, where each state gets one vote.

After the unanimous election of George Washington as the nation’s first president, the Founders figured that consequent elections would feature tons of candidates who would divide up the electoral pie into tiny chunks, giving Congress a chance to pick the winner. But as soon as national political parties formed, the number of presidential candidates shrank. Only two U.S. elections have been decided by the House and the last one was in 1824.

Why We Still Use the Electoral College

Electoral College
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY, left) shakes hands with Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) after the electoral votes from the 2008 presidential elections were counted and certified in the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009.

So why does the Electoral College still exist, despite its contentious origins and awkward fit with modern politics? The party in power typically benefits from the existence of the Electoral College, says Edwards, and the minority party has little chance of changing the system because a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds supermajority in Congress plus ratification by three-fourths of the states. 

Columnist George Will shudders to think of what would have happened in the 1960 election if there had been no Electoral College.

John F. Kennedy’s popular vote margin over Richard M. Nixon was just 118,574,” writes Will. “If all 68,838,219 popular votes had been poured into a single national bucket, there would have been powerful incentives to challenge the results in many of the nation’s 170,000 precincts.”