It's anachronistic, it's anti-democratic, and it's resulted in three men who lost the popular vote becoming president. So why don't we just get rid of it?
Abolishing the Electoral College would require the busy work of a constitutional amendment, and since the issue only comes up every four years and it's almost always worked, it's not a real winner of an issue for a politician to get behind.
What if a presidential candidate loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College?
Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison could tell you that person becomes president of the United States. John Quincy Adams could tell you that you can lose the popular vote and the Electoral College vote, but as long as your opponent doesn't get an Electoral College majority, you can be selected president by the House of Representatives.
What if there is an Electoral College tie?
Imagine this: Al Gore is president, and Dick Cheney is vice president. Our system allows for such a possibility because if there is a tie, the newly elected House decides on the president, and the Senate decides on the vice president. A divided Congress could produce a president and vice president of different parties. In the House each state delegation gets one vote (So there! representative democracy). If a delegation is evenly split along party lines and can't come to a consensus, it forfeits its vote. In the Senate each senator has a vote.
Who are the electors?
The electors are usually active members of their state party and are selected by the party to appear on the ballot of their presidential candidate. There are essentially no federal qualifications to be an elector although none can be a current national office holder nor have "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States." Coretta Scott King was an elector from Georgia, and before he was selected Ronald Reagan's CIA chief, William Casey was an elector from New York.
Do electors have to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state?
Not exactly. The Constitution does not require it, but some states have laws for the removal and replacement of a "faithless" elector. More than 99 percent of the time, electors behave themselves and vote for the candidate who carried their state. But in 1972 a Virginia elector pledged to Richard Nixon voted for the Libertarian candidate, in 1976 a Washington elector bolted from Gerald Ford to vote for Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 a West Virginia elector made a vast improvement to the ticket by selecting vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen as president and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as vice president.
How did the system get put into place?
Some of the founders wanted direct elections, and some thought Congress should elect the president in order to temper the power of the majority. Anticipating Rube Goldberg, they came up with the Electoral College.
Why is it called the Electoral College?
The term for electors was taken from the German princes of the Holy Roman Empire who selected the emperor. (Explainer was assured this is not a joke.) College in this case means people coming together for a common purpose.
Explainer thanks Michael White of the Office of the Federal Register, Michael J. Glennon of the University of California at Davis School of Law and many Slate readers for their suggestions. For more, see this site.