How does the general election for president of the United States work? The short, accurate, and misleading answer is as follows:
535 people from all of the states meet in their respective state capitals, and three additional people meet in the District of Columbia, and those 538 people elect the president and vice president (provided that a majority of them agree on a candidate for each of those offices).
The Founding Fathers, who provided in the U.S. Constitution for the selection of such a group, known as the "Electoral College", envisioned the process as being not much more complicated than that. The system quickly evolved into one in which the electors are agents of their political parties who have, with rare exceptions, voted for the candidates nominated by those parties. But the founders did not envision such an outcome.
Looking once again at the Federalist Papers, we see in Federalist No. 68, by Alexander Hamilton, that no thought was given to parties' role in the presidential election process, during the debates on ratification of the Constitution. His arguments in that essay were based on his assertion that the electors would be "men ... acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation" who would make "their choice" for president. He did not even feel the need to refute the possibility that the electors would become rubber stamps, ratifying choices made by their parties' caucuses or conventions.
That's in keeping with the attitude reflected in Federalist No. 10, as I described here, that the Constitution was crafted so as to deter the American body politic from splitting into parties.
With the same elitist tone that James Madison used in No. 10, Hamilton writes in No. 68 that:
A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the
general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
One of his chief concerns was that violence would ensue, if the presidential choice were made using any other procedure. He felt that, if the people elect a group of electors, rather than the one president, that process would be "less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements". Also, the fact that the electors meet in their respective states, rather than in one national gathering, would be less likely to foment violence.
That fear is interesting in light of our subsequent history, during which presidential elections have incited great passion among at least a portion of the electorate, but there has been little physical violence. However, three presidential candidates have been shot: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert Kennedy in 1968, and George Wallace in 1972. We should probably add John Kennedy to that list, because he was arguably campaigning for reelection when he was assassinated in 1963.
Hamilton was a bit too optimistic:
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of
President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.
Of course, we will never know how the outcome of any presidential election would have changed, had the electoral college worked the way Hamilton envisioned it. But I doubt that a small group of wise persons would have always chosen a well-qualified candidate, any more than the people have done, acting though party conventions and general elections.
More to come on the original form of the electoral college, and its subsequent evolution.