The following is a description of how the Electoral College was expected to function by the people who agreed upon it — that is to say, the Framers themselves.
The new office of the President of the United States will be filled using a three step process. First, the electors are chosen. Second, the electors assemble into separate groups, one in each state, and vote. Third, Congress receives the electors’ votes and decides on a president.
First, the electors are chosen
Each state will have a number of electors equal to its total Congressional delegation (representatives and senators combined). They must be different people, though. Senators and representatives are not allowed to become electors. For that matter, no elector should be an official or government employee, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
The method by which electors are chosen will vary from state to state. It is up to each state legislature to decide whether to appoint electors itself, delegate the appointment to the state governor, organize elections, or whatever other method will be used in that state.
This vagueness was a necessary compromise. Some of us wanted to divide each state up into districts and have the people of each district vote for an elector, but that seemed imprudently democratic to most of us. Some of us wanted state legislatures to appoint electors. However, there weren’t enough of us in favor of having state legislatures appoint electors to agree on that, either.
The ambiguous language let both pro-elector camps unite and allowed us to move away from having Congress itself elect the president without outside intervention. That isn’t to say that Congress does not play a role in the process we settled on, however.
Second, the electors assemble and vote
After being elected by the citizens of their district or being appointed by their state legislature (or however else they may have been chosen), the electors of each of the thirteen states will assemble in thirteen separate groups — one in each state capital.
This means there is not truly one college of electors, but many — thirteen for now. The groups of electors will meet and vote on the same day in each of the thirteen states, but they are thirteen separate groups, and we expect them to act independently.
In the future, there will likely be more, perhaps over twenty. The Northwest Territory will be divided into four to six states, and some of the more far-flung reaches of the larger states (western Virginia, western North Carolina, northern Massachusetts) have been agitating for independent status, and so on.
We considered having all of the electors assemble together in the national capital, but decided against it for two reasons.
First, electors would have to travel a great distance (as much as seven or eight hundred miles), which would take a great deal of time and cost a lot of money. Travel is uncertain and difficult, especially in the wintertime. In poor weather, some roads may become completely impassable by coach.
Second, the risk of coercion by force, conspiracy, intrigue, bribery, and so on is greater when all electors are assembled in one place. Both Germany and Poland assemble electors together in one place to elect the monarch, and their elections have been subject to foreign meddling.
Separate groups of electors meeting in separate locations at the same time must vote independently, without knowing what the electors in other states have decided. The state capitals are generally separated widely enough to make passing covert messages back and forth within a single day impossible, even with several changes of horse along the way.
We think it almost certain that the electors assembled in their state will have a local favorite, so instead of giving each elector a single vote, we have decided to give them two votes, and require that one of those votes be cast for a candidate outside of their home state.
For example, we might consider an election where there is one clear favorite in each state, with the electors’ second votes going to candidates in nearby states:
In this example, the Pennsylvanian has the most votes, 21 out of a possible 91. The next up are the Virginian (20) and New Yorker (19). The candidates from Massachusetts and North Carolina are tied for fourth place (17).
Congress decides upon a president
Each group of electors records the total vote for each person and sends it to Congress. The five people with the largest number of votes are the nominees for President of the United States. The House of Representatives will then choose between those candidates.
We expect that, as in the example given, the top five candidates will mostly be those chosen by the electors from the larger states. For this reason, when choosing the president, the House of Representatives will vote by state delegation — one vote for each state, just as is presently done in the Continental Congress. The runner-up with the most electoral votes will become vice president. (In the unlikely case of a tie for vice president, the Senate will vote to break the tie.)
A nominee must have the support of a majority of the states in order to become president — seven, in other words, and even more than that after our Union expands. This means that while the large states control the nomination process, the small states decide between nominees.
In our example, a majority would mean seven states. So if, after debate in the House, four states vote for the Pennsylvanian, four states vote for the New Yorker, and five states vote for the Virginian, the House must talk it out and then vote again.
Remember that the Pennsylvanian had the most electoral votes (21), while the Virginian had the second-most (20). If seven states vote for the Pennsylvanian in the House, the Virginian becomes vice president. If any of the other four nominees win out, the Pennsylvanian becomes vice president. Thus, the vice president will represent the largest constituency passed over for the president.
There is an exception to the above procedure. In the unusual case that the person earning the most votes has the votes from an outright majority of electors, then Congress will simply certify them as president after tallying up the votes from the Electoral College. This requires support from multiple regions of the country in more than four different states.
In the even less likely case that more than one person has a majority and they are tied with one another, then the House will break that tie.
We do not expect that many people will get an outright majority in the Electoral College. After all, if votes are divided thirteen or more ways, getting a quarter of all votes cast is difficult. While we expect a majority of the the first Electoral College will vote for George Washington, he is a truly exceptional person. In ordinary circumstances, the House will choose the president out of the nominees given to it by the Electoral College.
12th Amendment post-script
Sixteen years later…
We have now seen four elections for the president, with a fifth to take place soon. As all expected, George Washington was the rare sort of figure who could command a clear majority of support across the entire country; however, the factionalism that has developed in spite of his august leadership has led to both a majority election by the Electoral College and a tied majority in the Electoral College that was eventually resolved by the House of Representatives.
For this reason, it seems prudent to separate the election for president and vice president. A president and vice president belonging to opposing factions build conflict. We also hope to avoid having the House break a tie between two candidates of the same faction; the balloting between Burr and Jefferson was unpleasant.
As part of this package of reforms, we will reduce the number of nominees accepted by the House to three candidates for each of the two elections — six persons in total instead of five. This does, we must admit, make it very difficult for a candidate from a small state to advance to eventual election by the House of Representatives.
For this and other reasons, the legislatures of Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts have rejected the 12th Amendment, but it has been ratified by all other states.
My principal source for documentation on what was intended at the Constitutional Convention is The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 by Max Farrand. It is worth noting in particular that the Framers at the Constitutional Convention did not all have the same expectations or intentions. I have tried to present the expectations that seemed most typical.
For a contrary example, Gouverneur Morris clearly expressed the opinion that a majority vote in the Electoral College would not be rare or unusual. From the evidence available, however, it seems as if most of his peers did not believe him. It turned out that Morris was right.
My language in this piece is anachronistically modern, especially the use of the phrase “Electoral College” as a singular proper collective noun.