The secret racist history of the Electoral College
In the early morning hours after Election Day, in 2012, Donald Trump tweeted:
At the time Trump falsely believed that Mitt Romney had won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College. Trump’s English is a bit off; he appears to have meant that “the loser” won, not, as he had it, one. Trump later deleted the tweet, but others like this one remain on in his twitter feed:
The Electoral College is an embarrassment to our nation, and not just because it subverts the will of the voting majority. The Electoral College was designed to protect an evil American institution, slavery.
As Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar writes in his latest book. The Constitution Today, “The Electoral College was designed at Philadelphia and was revised in the wake of the Jefferson-Adams-Burr election of 1800-1801 to advantage the slaveholding South.”
Many history books will tell you that the Electoral College was devised by the founders because they feared that the electorate was too ill-informed to make the decision themselves. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that protecting the institution of slavery—and not a fear of low-information voters—motivated the decision.
As Amar points out, Northern politician James Wilson made the case during the Constitutional Convention for directly electing the president. But Southern slave-owner and future president James Madison shot down Wilson’s idea on the grounds that southern states “could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”
Madison was referring the infamous “three-fifths compromise,” which allowed the South to count each black slave as three-fifths of a person for determining how much representation that state got in the nation’s capital. If the president was directly elected by voters—a category that was limited at that time to white property-owning men—then the South would have less say in electing the president. Only by relying on the Electoral College, with its electors allocated using the skewed math of the three-fifths compromise, could the south maintain a strong voice in selecting the president and protect their interests. That’s why, as Amar writes, the Electoral College “was an integral part of the odious pro-slavery three-fifths compromise.”
Years later, it would become even more apparent that slavery was a key reason for preserving the Electoral College. After an Electoral College fiasco in the election of 1800—yes, the one you remember from the Hamilton soundtrack—Congress passed the 12th Amendment, revisiting the concept of an Electoral College.
Amar notes in his book that, by that point, the emergence of political parties in the United States had erased the problem of an uninformed electorate. With parties, voters did not have to decide between a roster of men whose values they were unfamiliar with. They could, instead, select candidates from two parties with defined visions for the country. But despite this fact, the Electoral College persisted. And why wouldn’t it? The extra Electoral College votes that the southern states had earned from the three-fifths compromise had given them just enough votes to make Thomas Jefferson, a slave-holding southerner, the president of the United States.
It took another 60 years and a civil war to abolish the institution of slavery. Who knows what it will take to get rid of slavery’s dogged cousin, the Electoral College.