Why the U.S. Doesn't Choose Its President Like a Pope

The United States almost created its own conclave—to select the president.

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Cardinals attend the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass at St. Peter's Basilica before they enter the conclave on March 12, 2013, to vote for a successor to Pope Benedict XVI after he became the first pope in 600 years to resign.

With all the talk of black smoke and failed ballots in Rome, it should be remembered that the United States almost created its own conclave—to select the president.

Although a large majority of Americans would vote to abolish the Electoral College, few realize that the Constitutional Convention often considered and nearly adopted a less democratic proposal to have the national legislature (Congress) choose the president. We further forget that when the framers were sequestered in Independence Hall in 1787, constructing our government, most of the world's chief executives were born into their positions (i.e., kings).

The College of the Cardinals, which began selecting popes in the late 13th century, offered the framers a rare example of how a vast state might elect an executive. Simply put, this means: Delegate the task to a permanent body of officials deeply vested in the outcome. Convene them in one central location. Use secret balloting to promote internal integrity. Place trust in the conscience of each individual casting his ballot and have faith that God's choice will be revealed in the votes.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Unsurprising given their recent experience with the British king, America's framers were highly suspect of any power that went unchecked or depended upon benevolence for its implementation.

While the predominantly Protestant delegates did not much talk of the Roman Pontiff, on July 17, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania objected to legislative selection and specifically raised the papal selection process. Speaking to the fears of many delegates, Morris said: "He [the president] will be the mere creature of the Legisl: if appointed & impeachable by that body…If the Legislature elect, it will be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction: it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals; real merit will rarely be the title of the appointment." 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Get Rid of the Electoral College?]

More intriguing, when one compares the rules governing the Electoral College with those in place for the conclave, one might believe that the framers intentionally crafted its opposite. In other words, delegate the task to an impermanent body of specially selected and "uninterested" officials (electors must not hold "an office of trust or profit under the United States"). Convene them in separate locations all across the country. Use transparent balloting to promote accountability. Place trust in the collective wisdom of the states' meetings and have faith that the majority choice be will a good one—like George Washington, not King George III.

For all the oft-articulated shortcomings of the Electoral College, its ingenious design possessed enough flexibility to ensure that when the political parties later jury rigged the process, the institution "rather than subverting democracy, preserves it in ways that are both enduring and significant."

We got lucky. We don't have to wait for white smoke.

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