The system we have for presidential elections is dangerous and rickety. It should be reformed -- very carefully.
I used to have nightmares about the electoral college. Then in 2001, they all came true. Since then, I've dreamed of getting rid of this wretched constitutional atavism. In the wake of California's recent adoption of the National Popular Vote plan, I'm having that sweet dream again.
The electoral-vote system is, and always was, what computer designers would call a kludge, vague and dangerous. The Philadelphia Framers first turned toward electors for the worst of reasons -- a desire not to be "unfair" to slave states. James Madison told the delegates that election of the president by "the people at large ... would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character." But popular election would "harm" the South because "the right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty ..."
Even for those dulled to the moral squalor of its slave origins, however, the electoral-vote system has another disadvantage: It doesn't work. It broke down within 12 years of its adoption, when electoral voting produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The resulting struggle in the House brought the country to the edge of civil war. Since then, it has kept breaking down. The election of 1824 ended up in the House; in 1876 and 2001, the electoral-vote mechanism malfunctioned in other humiliating and dangerous ways. The system has put the popular-vote runner-up in the White House in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. (In case you think I am just being a sore-Bush v. Gore loser about this, please note that in 2004, the switch of about 60,000 votes in Ohio from Bush to Kerry would have made Kerry president, even though Bush would still have won the popular vote by about 3 million votes.)