The Electoral College is a uniquely American invention. Only the U.S. has a system in which voters elect a body of “electors” whose sole function is to actually choose the president. Among democracies, U.S. stands out in how it chooses its head of state.
While there are many grievances about the Electoral College, one that’s rarely addressed is one dug up by an academic of the Constitution: that it was created to protect slavery, planting the roots of a system that’s still oppressive today.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Paul Finkelman, visiting law professor at University of Saskatchewan in Canada. “I think if most Americans knew what the origins of the Electoral College is, they would be disgusted.”
Madison, now known as the “Father of the Constitution,” was a slave-owner in Virginia, which at the time was the most populous of the 13 states if the count included slaves, who comprised about 40 percent of its population.
During that key speech at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Madison said that with a popular vote, the Southern states, “could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”
Madison knew that the North would outnumber the South, despite there being more than half a million slaves in the South who were their economic vitality, but could not vote. His proposition for the Electoral College included the “three-fifths compromise,” where black people could be counted as three-fifths of a person, instead of a whole. This clause garnered the state 12 out of 91 electoral votes, more than a quarter of what a president needed to win.
“None of this is about slaves voting,” said Finkelman, who wrote a paper on the origins of the Electoral College for a symposium after Al Gore lost. “The debates are in part about political power and also the fundamental immorality of counting slaves for the purpose of giving political power to the master class.”
He said the Electoral College’s three-fifths clause enabled Thomas Jefferson, who owned more than a hundred slaves, to beat out in 1800 John Adams, who was opposed to slavery, since the South had a stronghold.
While slavery was abolished (13th Amendment), and the Civil War led to citizenship (14th Amendment) and voting rights for black people (15th Amendment) the antebellum Electoral College remains intact. It is the only original slavery provision in the Constitution which has not been negated by constitutional amendment.
(One could reasonably argue that The Connecticut Compromise aka The Great Compromise of 1787, or Sherman Compromise, giving each state equal representation of two senators in the Senate is also a vestige of antebellum slavery).
During a CNN town hall in Jackson, MS, on Monday night, the Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren becoming the latest high-profile backer of eliminating the Electoral College. Sen. Elizabeth Warren Calls to Abolish the Electoral College:
“Come a general election, presidential candidates don’t come to places like Mississippi, they also don’t come to places like California or Massachusetts, because we’re not the battleground states,” Warren said at the town hall.
“My view is that every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College,” she said to a standing ovation.
The debate over the Electoral College has gained prominence in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, despite the former secretary of state winning the popular vote by nearly three million votes.
There’s a state-level effort burgeoning that seeks to dilute the power of the Electoral College. Colorado is the latest state to join a compact with 11 other states and the District of Columbia in which they pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. (See below).
Warren isn’t the only 2020 presidential contender to back the sweeping electoral reform. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the first presidential candidate to throw his support behind ending the Electoral College.
“We’ve got to repair our democracy. The Electoral College needs to go, because it’s made our society less and less democratic,” Buttigieg said in a January interview with “CBS This Morning.”
“I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that,” O’Rourke told an MSNBC reporter, adding that the Electoral College “puts some states out of play altogether.”
We no longer have slave states. They have been replaced by rural states, the heirs to the slave states, which now possess a disproportionate share of political power because of the equal representation of two senators for each state and the Electoral College.
Wyoming has the smallest population in the US, estimated at 573,720, and Wyoming also had the highest negative population growth of all states in 2018 at almost 1%. US States – Ranked by Population 2019. Yet Wyoming is constitutionally guaranteed to have 3 Electoral College votes even if every resident abandons the state. How does this make any sense?
The Littlest Rebel, Little Lindsey Graham, from the Southern secessionist state of South Carolina, the first state to secede and join the Confederacy in defense of slavery, is not amused by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal. He is clutching his pearls and getting the vapors. “I do declare, someone bring me my smelling salts.” Graham: Dems want to abolish Electoral College because they ‘want rural America to go away’:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Tuesday said calls by Democrats to abolish the Electoral College are being driven by a desire to minimize rural America’s influence on politics.
What he means to say is it would minimize rural states’ undue advantage from our slavery past and restore fairness to our electoral system, and make our democracy truly democratic by a popular vote.
“The desire to abolish the Electoral College is driven by the idea Democrats want rural America to go away politically,” Graham said on Twitter, linking to a Fox News report on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) call to move to a national popular vote for presidential elections.
It would actually force Republicans to moderate their crypto-fascist authoritarianism in order to be competitive in “blue” states ifthey ever hope to win the presidency. This would be a good thing.
It is this awareness of rural (mostly red) states that they possess an undue advantage from our slavery past — and they are OK with that — which makes amending the Constitution to do away with the Electoral College an improbability in our polarized political climate. Appeals to eliminating the last vestiges of slavery in the Constitution and making our democracy truly democratic falls on the deaf ears of partisans who are enjoying an undue advantage.
Li Zhou and Andrew Prokop at Vox explain How the US could actually get rid of the Electoral College (excerpt):
To ditch the Electoral College entirely, the US would have to pass a constitutional amendment (passed by two-thirds of the House and Senate and approved by 38 states) — or convene a constitutional convention (which has never been done, but would have to be called for by 34 states). Either method is vanishingly unlikely because each would require many small states to approve a change that would reduce their influence on the presidential outcome.
There is one potential workaround, however: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a clever proposal that uses the Constitution’s ambiguity on electors to its own ends.
A state signing on to the compact agrees that it will pledge all its electors not to its state winner but to the victor in the national popular vote — but only if states controlling 270 or more electoral votes have agreed to do the same. If they do, and everything works as planned, then whoever wins the popular vote will necessarily win the electoral vote too.
It’s an interesting proposal that’s already been enacted into law by 12 states (including the large states of California and New York) and the District of Columbia, which together control 181 electoral votes. But there’s one big obstacle: Most of the states that have adopted it are solidly Democratic, and just one is a swing state.
So unless a bunch of swing states decides to reduce their own power or Republican politicians conclude that a system bringing the power of small and rural states in line with that of big urban centers is a good idea, the compact isn’t going to get the support it needs, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has written.
At the very least, 2020 candidates’ focus on the issue is drawing attention to the possibility.
Patrick C. Valencia argues at the Harvard Journal on Legislation, Combination Among the States: Why the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is an Unconstitutional Attempt to Reform the Electoral College. Saul Anuzis, a senior consultant to National Popular Vote, naturally argues contra, Don’t believe the myths about a national popular vote: “this bill is not unconstitutional and it is not an end-run around the Constitution.”
I tend to agree that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is not a viable solution. Imagine this hypothetical if you will: what if Donald Trump actually won the popular vote in 2020? Would deep blue liberal states like California and New York, which have signed on to the compact, and whose residents will vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, really acquiesce in having their votes negated and to assign the state’s electoral votes to Donald Trump? Yeah, I don’t think so.
American’s are going to have to come to a day of reckoning. We simply cannot continue to justify the candidate who loses the popular vote being declared the winner simply because of an antiquated Electoral College, a system that no other country in the world uses. It undermines the legitimacy of our elections and citizens’ faith in the electoral process.
As Ryan Cooper wrote earlier this year, “The American Constitution is an outdated, malfunctioning piece of junk — and it’s only getting worse.” America’s Constitution is terrible. Let’s throw it out and start over.
When written, the Constitution made a morally hideous compromise with slavery that took a war and 750,000 lives to make right. And while its basic structure sort of worked for awhile in the 20th century, the Constitution is now falling prey to the same defects that has toppled every other similar governing document the world over.
The truth seems clear: America is going to have to overhaul its basic structure of government, or eventually it will fall to pieces.
I do not agree with many of the proposals Ryan Cooper makes, but he is right to sound the alarm. Our Constitution has flaws and antiquated provisions that need to be amended, or it will fail, along with our democracy.