There have, in its 200 year history, been a number of critics and proposed reforms to the Electoral College system - most of them trying to eliminate it. But there are also staunch defenders of the Electoral College who, though perhaps less vocal than its critics, offer very powerful arguments in its favor.
Those who object to the Electoral College system and favor a direct popular election of the president generally do so on four grounds:
The Electoral College was intended, first and foremost, to retain a pre-eminent role for states in choosing their president. The framers believed that states mattered, empowering them with equal status in the Senate regardless of population. They didn’t oppose popular will outright; members of Congress and state “electors” have been chosen by direct vote for over 200 years. Yet they sought a system that would discount lopsided statewide votes and regional candidates — which the Electoral College very much did in 1888. That year, Grover Cleveland lost the presidency despite a popular vote margin that came from landslide victories across the post-Civil War South.
The scrappers’ desire to eliminate the role of states is an extension of the belief that pretty much everything should be decided by the federal government — down to school lunch menus and restrictions on bullying. But a national popular vote would only encourage candidates to focus on the largest population centers. Dallas, Chicago, and San Diego would see intense activity. The 24 states with populations less than 4 million? Not so much.
Scrappers complain that only eight or 10 states are “in play” during the campaign’s final days.
The scrappers’ argument appears oblivious to the fact that the “key” states change over time. Within the past few decades, California and New Jersey have moved from Republican strongholds to Democratic layups. Missouri and Virginia moved from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican and now are swing states.
The Electoral College also acts as a natural check on fraudulent behavior, and it allows resources used to combat fraud — or voter suppression — to be deployed where they are valued most. Think of it this way: In a national system, a single highly corrupt precinct within a highly partisan state can do a lot of damage. (And therefore the incentive to engage in such behavior is also greater.) By contrast, the strong two-party system in swing states acts as a natural check on bad behavior.