Even when the delegates’ hopes and expectations were clear, constitutional amendments have altered the operation of the Electoral College. The Twelfth Amendment, adopted after the contested election of 1800, requires electors to specify for whom they are voting for president and vice president. The Twentieth Amendment, by shifting the date congressional terms begin to January 3, ensures that the newly elected House of Representatives, rather than the previous House, would elect the president if no candidate received an electoral-vote majority. And the Twenty-Third Amendment extends the right to vote in presidential elections to U.S. citizens residing in the District of Columbia, awarding the District three electoral votes, though the Electoral College continues to deny American citizens living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories any role in choosing the president.
Even more important have been changes in political practice. In “Federalist No. 64,” John Jay maintained that the Electoral College “will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens,” and in “Federalist No. 68,” Alexander Hamilton described the electors as “most likely to possess the information and discernment” necessary to choose the chief executive. But by 1800 political parties had developed, and elector discretion was replaced by elector commitment to the parties’ candidates. Today many states do not even bother to list the electors’ names on the ballot. Interestingly, Hamilton and Madison as party leaders played a crucial role in this transformation.
Read: The Electoral College conundrum
The Constitution authorized state legislatures to determine how electors were to be selected, but by 1828 every state but South Carolina chose its electors by popular vote, and today all states do. Moreover, despite the initial expectation that electors would be chosen in districts, by 1836 party competition had promoted a winner-take-all allocation of electors in all the states. (Maine and Nebraska have since bucked that trend.) This in turn has affected presidential campaigns, as more and more candidates target their speeches, campaign appearances, and ads at “swing states” and largely ignore states they confidently expect to carry or to lose.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of primary elections, the nationalization of the choice of presidential candidates, the move toward candidate-based campaigns, and the reduced importance of state party organizations have fundamentally transformed presidential selection, without changing how votes are awarded under the Electoral College.
In “Federalist No. 68,” Alexander Hamilton contended that the Electoral College would frustrate “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” It would also “afford a moral certainty that the office of President [would] seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In addition, it would keep from the office candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” In evaluating the Electoral College today, one must judge whether Hamilton’s hopes have been vindicated.