The Electoral College is an Artifact of Slavery
Every four years, America has the same conversation about the electoral college:
This system is unjust and undemocratic! Why do we still have this antiquated system?
And then we forget it about until the next four years, when the possibility of electing a minority president (a president elected by the minority of voters in the popular vote) rears its head again.
This time, Joseph Biden narrowly won the electoral college despite winning approximately 4.2 million more votes nationwide. The number of electoral college electors Biden will obtain may eventually grow to 305 if Biden wins Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, but the margins of these individual states were extremely narrow.
However, as this article from MSNBC explains, despite record turnout across the nation unparalleled since the presidential election of 1900, the electoral college system still incentivizes swing state voters to come out to vote more than states that we are told “don’t matter.” Thus, while there was a 9 to 11 point increase in turnout in states like North Carolina and Michigan, there was only a 3 to 5 point increase in turnout in Alabama and California.
The problem is, as this article in Time magazine adeptly explains, we have forgotten that the reason for the electoral college’s existence was originally to ensure the power of slave states.
If the presidential election in our country’s early history had been decided by the popular vote, the free states would easily have had a higher population. This necessitated the horrendous 3/5ths clause of the Constitution, which counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person for the census (which determines the number of electors in the electoral college, as well as the number of representatives in the House).
I could go into a digression here about how even the concept of a bicameral legislature is unquestionably rooted in a suspicion of direct democracy, if not arguably rooted in America’s history of institutional slavery and racism. But regardless, it is clear that the electoral college is directly tied to the history of slavery. Thus it is no surprise that for 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the Presidency. This is because despite the fact that Pennsylvania had a larger population than Virginia, Virginia could count 3/5ths of its slave population toward its electors.
Some may argue that because slavery has been abolished, the electoral college is no longer tied to slavery. But it is any coincidence that when Congress attempted to abolish the electoral college during the Nixon administration, the dissenting Senators were from southern states?
This is because the electoral college, despite being based on the census, disproportionately gives more favor to rural states. This disparity has just gotten larger with time: Donald Trump won in 2016 despite Hillary Clinton receiving over 3 million more votes, and Trump almost won in 2020 due to narrow margins in a few Midwestern states.
The electoral college is also tied to modern day systemic racism. The votes of black voters in the South, rather than being tabulated with the rest of the national population, is routinely outnumbered depending on the state you live in. So while black voters in Atlanta may deliver an electoral college victory for Georgia, black voters in Alabama or Mississippi are marginalized. Black voters in Georgia came out so strongly to deliver a potential victory, but if the margin is off in the state by 0.1%, the whole venture is for naught.
Republicans know this, and know that the electoral college favors their party. In fact, they may know that the major outcome of the abolition of the electoral college is the liberation of the minority vote in states like Texas and South Carolina.
So the question is, why do we still have the electoral college? The short answer is because it would take a constitutional amendment to abolish it, which would require introducing a constitutional amendment in Congress, and then that amendment would need to be ratified by 38 out of 50 state legislatures. Close readers will quickly see the problem here: the system is self reinforcing. Even if the constitutional amendment passes in Congress, why would representatives of states currently favored by the electoral college voluntarily agree to give up power?
Therefore, it seems that this purposefully undemocratic institution seems destined to stay in effect by design. This may be true for the near future. But we should not forget that in this arena, like in many other arenas, the United States lags behind the rest of the world. For instance, no countries in Europe have an equivalent system for electing a head of state.
I am a firm believer in the idea that one vote should equal one vote, no matter where you live. But I understand the reticence that some voters in America’s heartland may have that their vote may not matter as much if the electoral college was abolished.
I ask that these voters imagine what it’s like for those whose votes currently matter less: those who live in the populated states who may stay home because they know their state will go blue anyway. I’d also argue that if you are currently Republican in a blue state, you would also be incentivized more to vote if the electoral college were abolished. But no matter how you square it, you cannot argue that you believe in democracy and defend the electoral college.
The electoral college may seem like one issue to add to the laundry list of issues to address under the Biden administration: climate change, healthcare, addressing deep economic disparity, and healing the economic wounds of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I’d argue that the electoral college enables all of this: it enables administrations that don’t care about majoritarian issues, it enables someone like Donald Trump to come to power in the first place.
It’s time for America to think systemically. And most of all, just because the majoritarian candidate won this time, doesn’t mean it’s not possible in 4 years. We should celebrate Donald Trump’s defeat, but we should also not shut our brains off for the next 4 years. I’ve been told I’m a Debbie Downer, but this election should read like a wake-up call to the majority of Americans: we narrowly escaped defeat by an undemocratic system. This contentious period of extended vote counting and casting suspicion on the democratic process still isn’t over.
If this election cycle and days of awaiting a victor in the presidential election gave you anxiety, remember: in 2024, we repeat the game all over again, unless we get to work.