The Electoral College is an archaic institution designed by men who felt that they could not trust the people at large to choose the president—or so we are told every four years by the most ignorant members of the Fourth Estate. While it may have been true (the argument continues) that the people were relatively uninformed when the Constitution was adopted, we cannot say the same thing today. After all, we now have CNN and C-SPAN and NPR and the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Any objection the Founding Fathers could have had to popular election must surely vanish in the face of these organs of enlightenment. Any objection, that is, except the real one. The Framers of the Constitution, although undoubtedly skeptical of the ability of the people at large to decide on national affairs, were not opposed to popular election per se. They allowed for direct election of the House of Representatives, and they included in the Constitution certain requirements for being able to vote—not simply because they thought suffrage should be restricted (which, of course, they did), but because they wanted to ensure that states could not impose more strict suffrage requirements in national elections.

Why, then, did the Framers establish the Electoral College? A quick glance at James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention reveals the answer. In their consideration of the election of the president, as in so many other areas, the Framers were concerned with two problems: mitigating the influence of faction and preserving the sovereignty of the states. If the president were elected by popular vote, the opportunities for factious demagoguery were great, and the states could, essentially, be disenfranchised by their own citizens. State sovereignty could be preserved by allowing the state legislatures to determine the method of appointing electors; the popular will would still be taken into account, since the people elected their state legislators.

Today, as far as state sovereignty is concerned, the Constitution is essentially a dead letter. The Electoral College is the only significant vestige of the Old Republic that reminds us that the states are not simply administrative subdistricts of the federal government—that the states, in fact, created the federal government. But while proposed constitutional amendments to abolish the Electoral College have never gone anywhere, the system has been successfully undermined in the states over the years by the forces of faction, which go today by the name of political parties. Any attempt to restore the Electoral College to its full function as conceived by the Framers must confront the problem of political parties—and, therefore, it is probably doomed to failure. Still, it does not hurt to dream.

The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, was the earliest change to the Electoral College; it was also one of the most damaging, because it is one of the few instances in which the Constitution was changed to reflect the party system. (The 25th Amendment, allowing the president to appoint a vice president if the office is vacant, and the 14th Amendment, which disenfranchised a large number of Southern Democratic Party leaders and therefore ensured the primacy of the Republican Party, are the other instances.) While the amendment does not mention political parties, it sets up separate elections for president and vice president, making it almost inevitable that the two will come from one party; until that point, the man who received the second-highest number of electoral votes became vice president, regardless of his party affiliation. Repealing the 12th Amendment would strike a blow at the heart of the party system.

Any other reform should take place at the state level, because that is where the damage has been done. While the Constitution allows state legislatures to determine the method of appointing electors, every state now uses the popular vote. State legislatures might consider appointing electors based on the popular vote within each congressional district, allocating one of the two extra votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote and the other to the candidate who wins the largest number of congressional districts. While this system would force candidates to campaign within each congressional district, it would (unfortunately) probably strengthen the party system, since the districts are created by (and for) the parties (with a touch of judicial intervention).

A more radical proposal would be to return to the Framers’ vision of appointing electors on the basis of their qualifications, rather than party affiliation. By adopting this idea, a few brave state legislatures could potentially deprive both of the major parties of the ability to construct an Electoral College majority. At the very least, they could force the presidential candidates to address issues that concern each state at large. Under the current winner-take-all system (which every state except Maine and Nebraska has adopted), candidates can simply pander to large urban populations and ignore the bulk of the state. Although Rockford is the second-largest city in Illinois, no presidential candidate has stopped here since 1988, because Chicago can manufacture more than enough votes to allow a candidate to win Illinois’ 22 electoral votes. Returning to the Framers’ original plan would not only restore a measure of state sovereignty; it would re-enfranchise millions of voters in small cities, towns, and countrysides across the United States.