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The Electoral College’s Racist Origins

More than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.

Electoral College 1940s

This piece was origin­ally published by the Atlantic.

Is a color-blind polit­ical system possible under our Consti­tu­tion? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evis­cer­a­tion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in Amer­ica today are not exper­i­en­cing 1950s levels of voter suppres­sion, efforts to keep them and other citizens from parti­cip­at­ing in elec­tions began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.

In Shelby County’s oral argu­ment, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a soci­ety adopts racial enti­tle­ments, it is very diffi­cult to get them out through the normal polit­ical processes.” Iron­ic­ally enough, there is some truth to an other­wise fright­en­ingly numb claim. Amer­ican elec­tions have an acute history of racial enti­tle­ment­s—only they don’t priv­ilege black Amer­ic­ans.

For centur­ies, white votes have gotten undue weight, as a result of innov­a­tions such as poll taxes and voter-ID laws and outright viol­ence to discour­age racial minor­it­ies from voting. (The point was obvi­ous to anyone paying atten­tion: As William F. Buckley argued in his essay “Why the South Must Prevail,” white Amer­ic­ans are “entitled to take such meas­ures as are neces­sary to prevail, polit­ic­ally and cultur­ally,” anywhere they are outnumbered because they are part of “the advanced race.”) But Amer­ica’s insti­tu­tions boos­ted white polit­ical power in less obvi­ous ways, too, and the nation’s oldest struc­tural racial enti­tle­ment program is one of its most consequen­tial: the Elect­oral College.

Comment­at­ors today tend to down­play the extent to which race and slavery contrib­uted to the Framers’ creation of the Elect­oral College, in effect white­wash­ing history: Of the consid­er­a­tions that factored into the Framers’ calcu­lus, race and slavery were perhaps the fore­most.

Of course, the Framers had a number of other reas­ons to engin­eer the Elect­oral College. Fear­ful that the pres­id­ent might fall victim to a host of civic vices—that he could become suscept­ible to corrup­tion or cronyism, sow disunity, or exer­cise over­reach—the men sought to constrain exec­ut­ive power consist­ent with consti­tu­tional prin­ciples such as feder­al­ism and checks and balances. The deleg­ates to the Phil­adelphia conven­tion had scant concep­tion of the Amer­ican pres­id­ency—the duties, powers, and limits of the office. But they did have a hand­ful of ideas about the method for select­ing the chief exec­ut­ive. When the idea of a popu­lar vote was raised, they griped openly that it could result in too much demo­cracy. With few objec­tions, they quickly dispensed with the notion that the people might choose their leader.

But deleg­ates from the slave­hold­ing South had another rationale for oppos­ing the direct elec­tion method, and they had no qualms about artic­u­lat­ing it: Doing so would be to their disad­vant­age. Even James Madison, who professed a theor­et­ical commit­ment to popu­lar demo­cracy, succumbed to the real­it­ies of the situ­ation. The future pres­id­ent acknow­ledged that “the people at large was in his opin­ion the fittest” to select the chief exec­ut­ive. And yet, in the same breath, he captured the senti­ment of the South in the most “diplo­matic” terms:

“There was one diffi­culty however of a seri­ous nature attend­ing an imme­di­ate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffus­ive in the North­ern than the South­ern States; and the latter could have no influ­ence in the elec­tion on the score of the Negroes. The substi­tu­tion of elect­ors obvi­ated this diffi­culty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objec­tions.”

Behind Madis­on’s state­ment were the stark facts: The popu­la­tions in the North and South were approx­im­ately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bond­age. Because of its consid­er­able, nonvot­ing slave popu­la­tion, that region would have less clout under a popu­lar-vote system. The ulti­mate solu­tion was an indir­ect method of choos­ing the pres­id­ent, one that could lever­age the three-fifths comprom­ise, the Faus­tian bargain they’d already made to determ­ine how congres­sional seats would be appor­tioned. With about 93 percent of the coun­try’s slaves toil­ing in just five south­ern states, that region was the undoubted bene­fi­ciary of the comprom­ise, increas­ing the size of the South’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choos­ing the pres­id­ent, it was all too easy for the deleg­ates to resort to the three-fifths comprom­ise as the found­a­tion. The pecu­liar system that emerged was the Elect­oral College.

Right from the get-go, the Elect­oral College has produced no short­age of lessons about the impact of racial enti­tle­ment in select­ing the pres­id­ent. History buffs and Hamilton fans are aware that in its first major fail­ure, the Elect­oral College produced a tie between Thomas Jeffer­son and his putat­ive running mate, Aaron Burr. What’s less known about the elec­tion of 1800 is the way the Elect­oral College succeeded, which is to say that it oper­ated as one might have expec­ted, based on its embrace of the three-fifths comprom­ise. The South’s baked-in advant­ages—the bonus elect­oral votes it received for main­tain­ing slaves, all while not allow­ing those slaves to vote—made the differ­ence in the elec­tion outcome. It gave the slave­holder Jeffer­son an edge over his oppon­ent, the incum­bent pres­id­ent and abol­i­tion­ist John Adams. To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third pres­id­ent “meta­phor­ic­ally rode into the exec­ut­ive mansion on the backs of slaves.” That elec­tion contin­ued an almost unin­ter­rup­ted trend of south­ern slave­hold­ers and their dough­faced sympath­izers winning the White House that lasted until Abra­ham Lincol­n’s victory in 1860.

In 1803, the Twelfth Amend­ment modi­fied the Elect­oral College to prevent another Jeffer­son-Burr–­type debacle. Six decades later, the Thir­teenth Amend­ment outlawed slavery, thus ridding the South of its wind­fall elect­ors. Never­the­less, the shoddy system contin­ued to cleave the Amer­ican demo­cratic ideal along racial lines. In the 1876 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the Demo­crat Samuel Tilden won the popu­lar vote, but some elect­oral votes were in dispute, includ­ing those in—wait for it—Flor­ida. An ad hoc commis­sion of lawmakers and Supreme Court justices was empaneled to resolve the matter. Ulti­mately, they awar­ded the contested elect­oral votes to Repub­lican Ruther­ford B. Hayes, who had lost the popu­lar vote. As a part of the agree­ment, known as the Comprom­ise of 1877, the federal govern­ment removed the troops that were stationed in the South after the Civil War to main­tain order and protect black voters.

The deal at once marked the end of the brief Recon­struc­tion era, the redemp­tion of the old South, and the birth of the Jim Crow regime. The decision to remove soldiers from the South led to the restor­a­tion of white suprem­acy in voting through the system­atic disen­fran­chise­ment of black people, virtu­ally accom­plish­ing over the next eight decades what slavery had accom­plished in the coun­try’s first eight decades. And so the Elect­oral College’s misfire in 1876 helped ensure that Recon­struc­tion would not remove the original stain of slavery so much as smear it onto the other parts of the Consti­tu­tion’s fabric, and coun­ten­ance the racial­ized patch­work demo­cracy that endured until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What’s clear is that, more than two centur­ies after it was designed to empower south­ern whites, the Elect­oral College contin­ues to do just that. The current system has a distinct, adverse impact on black voters, dilut­ing their polit­ical power. Because the concen­tra­tion of black people is highest in the South, their preferred pres­id­en­tial candid­ate is virtu­ally assured to lose their home states’ elect­oral votes. Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose popu­la­tions are 25 percent or more black have been reli­ably red in recent pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Three of those states have not voted for a Demo­crat in more than four decades. Under the Elect­oral College, black votes are submerged. It’s the precise reason for the success of the south­ern strategy. It’s precisely how, as Buckley might say, the South has prevailed.

Among the Elect­oral College’s support­ers, the favor­ite ration­al­iz­a­tion is that without the advant­age, politi­cians might disreg­ard a large swath of the coun­try’s voters, partic­u­larly those in small or geograph­ic­ally incon­veni­ent states. Even if the claim were true, it’s hardly conceiv­able that switch­ing to a popu­lar-vote system would lead candid­ates to ignore more voters than they do under the current one. Three-quar­ters of Amer­ic­ans live in states where most of the major parties’ pres­id­en­tial candid­ates do not campaign.

More import­ant, this “voters will be ignored” rationale is morally indefens­ible. Award­ing a numer­ical few voting “enhance­ments” to decide for the many amounts to a tyranny of the minor­ity. Under any other circum­stances, we would call an elect­oral system that weights some votes more than others a farce—which the Supreme Court, more or less, did in a series of land­mark cases. Can you imagine a world in which the votes of black people were weighted more heav­ily because pres­id­en­tial candid­ates would other­wise ignore them, or, for that matter, any other reason? No. That would be a racial enti­tle­ment. What’s easier to imagine is the racial burdens the Elect­oral College contin­ues to wreak on them.

Crit­ics of the Elect­oral College are right to denounce it for hand­ing victory to the loser of the popu­lar vote twice in the past two decades. They are also correct to point out that it distorts our polit­ics, includ­ing by encour­aging pres­id­en­tial campaigns to concen­trate their efforts in a few states that are not repres­ent­at­ive of the coun­try at large. But the disem­power­ment of black voters needs to be added to that list of concerns, because it is core to what the Elect­oral College is and what it always has been.

The race-conscious­ness estab­lish­ment—and reten­tion—of the Elect­oral College has suppor­ted an enti­tle­ment program that our 21st-century demo­cracy cannot justify. If people truly want ours to be a race-blind polit­ics, they can start by pluck­ing that strange, low-hanging fruit from the Consti­tu­tion.