The electoral college is a hotly debated issue, and the current primaries have once again brought it into the public forum. Many feel the electoral college isn't fair, and votes don't count because of it. Defenders of the institution point out that it prevents the election of unfit candidates. There are definite problems with the system, but removing it is not as simple as it sounds. Understanding the complex history of the electoral college will shed some light on why it functions the way it does.
The founding fathers wrote the electoral college into the Constitution. They were very concerned with protecting liberty and the rights of the individual. At that time, literacy and education among the public was not anything like it is today. Thus, the political elite (which the founders were members of) did not trust the masses with electing a president. Their idea of the electoral college was as a group of highly qualified experts who would be in charge of selecting the president and vice president. Originally, the delegates were chosen by state legislatures instead of the voters themselves.
Liberty or democracy?
A common complaint is that the electoral college isn't democratic. But that is kind of the point. It was never designed to be democratic; the founders created it to protect liberty. Democracy in 1776 was considered highly suspect, as many of the early attempts with it ended up with violent mob rule. The framers of the Constitution were very aware of this and sought to ensure that fate would not occur in America. To them, this was a way to prevent the majority from ruling or abusing the minority.
Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party
However, the college never worked out the way it was supposed to. Slowly, the election of delegates was given to the voters themselves instead of the state legislatures. With this arose the popular vote, which had not existed before. Many of the first presidents were chosen by the political elite, and the average voter had absolutely no say in it.
Andrew Jackson's first loss at the presidency was a major turning point, especially in regard to the electoral college. The popular vote does not decide the winner, the one who wins the most electoral votes does. Typically, the winner tends to be the one who gets the most votes. But several times this has not been the case. When Jackson lost due to this fact, the Democratic Party formed to address what was seen as an injustice.
Since the delegates were now chosen by the voters, and they voted for president, the electoral college became more representative of a popular vote. This is very different from the intent of the framers, who felt delegates should be selected for their knowledge, instead of winning a popular vote.
While the Democratic Party was formed to give the popular vote more power, even in recent years this has not been the case. Remember, many of the delegates are not duty-bound to vote any particular way. While this can be honorable in its intention to prevent undue influence, it can also enable corruption. With the evidence of so much political corruption, it is hard to defend the electoral college anymore, especially when you factor in the founding fathers' original intent in protecting liberty and the current failure of it to do so.