Two of the three United States presidents of this century have initially been elected by a majority of voters in the [Electoral] College and a minority of popular votes. However, the Electoral College is not an American invention, but a medieval relic. Across various centuries, many political communities in Europe and the Americas have used selected electors in different political and territorial units to elect a high magistrate. The origins date back to the 11th century, when the Frankish, Carolingian, Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish kings were elected by their peers, gathered in voters’ colleges formed by dukes, marquises, counts and bishops. Similar formulas were used to elect high magistrates in the city-republics of northern Italy, as well as abbots and abbesses of the Dominicans and other monastic orders.
Soon they were followed by the Conclave of the Cardinals to choose the Pope. Initially, the highest ranking cardinal-bishops were supposed to be able to persuade the cardinal-priests and the cardinal-deacons. But discord often arose between the “wisest party” (the bishops) and the “major party” in votes. A series of candidates refused to accept defeat, prompting the self-nomination of “anti-popes” and several schisms in the Church. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory had to clarify that “zeal should not be compared with zeal, nor merit with merit, but only numbers with numbers [of votes].”
Similarly, in the 12th century the Holy Roman-Germanic emperor began to be chosen by a college formed by a selection of members of the nobility and archbishops with different qualifications. The voters of the school were divided three times, which produced pairs of emperors and anti-emperors in conflict. One of the defeated candidates, Alfonso X the Wise, king of Castile and Leon, who had obtained the majority of votes but not the support of enough qualified electors, warned that the emperor would have real authority only if he were chosen by “the greater part,” or a majority of votes.
Subsequently, the college formula was used to select what both Hamilton in the United States and Simon Bolivar in South America called “elected kings with the name of presidents.” After being included in the United States Constitution in 1789, the Electoral College was adopted — usually under the name of “assembly” — 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 was also used in the Federal Republic of Central America in 1824 and in the countries that subsequently separated from it: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
In most cases, the Electoral College gave the same number of voters to each territorial unit, whether it was a state or a province. This resulted in the election of several candidates who had lost popular vote. In some cases, the system planned that if no candidate obtained a majority of voters, Congress would elect the president. This happened four times in Colombia, three in Bolivia, once in Mexico and once in Venezuela. In Argentina, on three occasions when no candidate won the majority of electors, the college selected the winner in popular votes. The last electoral college outside of the United States selected the Argentine president as recently as 1989. Currently, only the United States uses the presidential Electoral College.
Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote, but won a majority in the Electoral College. Their supporters maintain that if the system had been different, they could have won the popular vote, simply by doing another type of campaign and mobilizing more supporters in pro-Republican states such as Texas or Florida. The Democrats, however, could of course say that they, too, would have made another type of campaign to mobilize more votes in favorable states, such as California or New York. It is not possible to know now who would have won a direct election based on popular vote.
If the Electoral College was replaced by a direct popular election at the national level, not only would the electoral strategies change, but probably also the parties themselves. The campaigns would not focus on states with an uncertain winner, but on the most populous states. The overall voter turnout would probably be greater than it is today. Small states would no longer have so much influence on primary elections. Even the number of viable candidates could be different, depending on how the new electoral rule was designed. Given the scope of change, most current political actors would certainly oppose any attempt to replace the Electoral College with a post-medieval system.
In fact, almost every time a Latin American country replaced the Electoral College with a popular vote, the change came in response to a major political crisis. For example, in Brazil, direct presidential elections took place for the first time when its monarchy was replaced by a republic in 1894. In Colombia, the change came after the overthrow of a military dictatorship and its replacement by a new constitution in 1910. In Mexico, direct presidential elections were a consequence of the revolution and a new constitution in 1917. In Venezuela, the first open election took place in a brief interlude between dictatorships in 1947, and in Argentina, when a major constitutional reform was undertaken a few years after the military dictatorship had been removed and democracy was established in 1994. In the absence of a crisis of such magnitude, it is unlikely to occur in the United States.
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