Another Monument to White Supremacy That Should Come Down? The Electoral College

A new book examines the racist history of how Americans pick presidents.

George Washington presides over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 25 - September 17, 1787. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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We are in a moment of reckoning over racism, not only taking down Confederate statues to eradicate these lingering odes to white supremacy but also examining how deeply our society has been shaped by slavery and its aftermath. Last year, the New York Times’ 1619 Project traced the influence of slavery on everything from American capitalism to the American diet. Today, individuals, brands, and lawmakers are taking stock. In this reappraisal, the Electoral College is likewise due for a second look.

In the last five elections, the Electoral College has handed the presidency to two Republicans who lost the popular vote: George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Looking ahead to the election this November, Democrats harbor a very realistic fear that Trump will again prevail without winning the popular vote. The political divisions and demographics of the 21st century have highlighted the undemocratic Electoral College system. But the fact that we have an election system that privileges a minority white party over a diverse majority is not a quirk of the system. That has been its purpose all along. 

In his new book, Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar sets out to answer the question that is also the title of his book: Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? Keyssar, who is an expert in surveying a topic throughout American history, including his seminal work on the history of voting rights in the United States, begins at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and works his way up to the present, examining how the framers created the Electoral College, then each successive attempt to reform or abolish it. 

The Electoral College allots votes to each state based on its number of representatives in Congress—which is based on a highly imperfect approximation of population that gives short shrift to populous states, plus two for each senator. The result is that not everyone’s vote carries the same weight; in 2016, Wyoming had one electoral vote for every 190,000 residents while in California each vote represented 680,000 people.

It is conventional wisdom that the Electoral College system was a compromise to induce small states to join the union. Almost 250 years after the Constitution was written, it is widely assumed that the Electoral College is here to stay because small states would refuse to give up their disproportionate power. But it turns out that is a narrative prime for debunking. Keyssar found that attempts to elect the president through a national popular vote have been thwarted not by small states but instead by the white leaders of southern ones, who viewed the system as key to maintaining white supremacy.  

Before the Civil War, southern states enjoyed an advantage in the Electoral College the same way they did in Congress; congressional representation was biased toward Southern whites due to the Three-Fifths Compromise, by which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and electoral votes were based on the same calculation as political representation. As early as 1800, “electoral votes attributable to slaves provided Thomas Jefferson’s margin of victory,” Keyssar writes. After Reconstruction, Southern Whites used Jim Crow and vigilante violence to deprive Black people of the franchise. Black Americans were now fully counted as part of a state’s population, but they still could not vote, growing white southerners’ outsized influence. “In 1904, for example, Delaware had cast roughly the same number of votes for Congress as Georgia had, but Georgia had eleven representatives while Delaware had only one,” Keyssar writes. That same year, which was not an anomaly, Ohio had the same number of voters as nine southern states combined, “but those nine states possessed ninety-nine electoral votes in comparison to Ohio’s twenty-three.”

Southern whites understood that the system was key not only to their outsized influence but also to the continued subjugation of Black voters in state elections. If the nation adopted a national popular vote, there would be attempts to court the votes of Southern Black people and pressure to lift voting restrictions. 

Even after the civil rights movement and the end of Jim Crow, the Southern senators blocked the adoption of a national popular vote amendment. “The Electoral College is one of the South’s few remaining political safeguards,” Alabama Democratic Sen. James Allen wrote in 1969, according to Keyssar. “Let’s keep it.” That decision has continued to suppress the electoral views of Black voters in the South. In 2016, for example, every state of the former Confederacy except Virginia voted for Donald Trump, though the region’s Black voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton. “In a region whose population was 21 percent African American, only 13 of 160 electoral votes (8 percent) were cast for the candidate favored by Blacks,” Keyssar writes. 

There have been various efforts to abolish the Electoral College over the years. Until the 1950s, they focused on attempts to replace the winner-take-all system with proportional or district allotment. But the closest Congress came to a national popular vote amendment to the Constitution was in 1970. The most notable current attempt to end the Electoral College is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a clever end-run around Congress and the difficulty of amending the Constitution. States that join promise to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote; the compact will be triggered once enough states join so that the winner of the popular vote will win the Electoral College. But Republican-controlled states are unlikely to join. Because the GOP is an increasingly white party, which under Trump has embraced a politics of racial grievance that shrinks the party’s base of support, Republicans increasingly see the Electoral College as a lifeline. As a result, Republican support for the institution has surged since 2016. 

But when I talked to Keyssar last week, he wasn’t sure that the Electoral College would endure. Despite meticulously documenting each unsuccessful attempt to change how we elect presidents, Keyssar was hopeful the Electoral College, like Confederate statues, would be toppled in the not too distant future. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Despite the conventional wisdom that small states are the reason for the Electoral College, you found that there was much more consistent support for it from southern states. Did that surprise you? 

As is true for everyone, I also thought that the small states [were responsible]. It was the standard explanation. I didn’t see an obvious reason why it would be untrue. Then there were several different stages in my thinking about this. 

When I began reading about the events of the 1960s and 1970s, where we came closest to getting rid of the Electoral College and in favor of a national popular vote, I began noticing that a number of the leaders of the movement for a national popular vote came from small states: William Langer from North Dakota, John Pastore from Rhode Island, Mike Mansfield from Montana. Then I also went in and did analyses of the roll call votes, and they confirmed that the issue was not small states versus large states. 

There is not a coalition of small states that functions politically. And they don’t necessarily have a lot in common. Whereas the states of the South were a block and they did have a lot in common politically. And that was true in the 19th century and the 20th.

Another piece of conventional wisdom that I had absorbed was that the Electoral College was a compromise to get the small states to sign on to the Constitution. You did find some evidence for that, but you found that it was much more a compromise for southern states. 

The way in which I finally would understand this is that the fights between both small and large states and between slave and non-slave states had been fought out earlier in the summer [of 1787 at the Constitutional Convention], over representation in Congress. It produced the compromises of two branches of the legislature, one based on population and the other, every state getting the same amount of power, and then the compromises over slavery which produce the three-fifths clause. 

What the electoral college does, when the framers finally come up with the idea at the end of the convention when they’re struggling with this, is they import those compromises which were already agreed to, into the presidential election system. They’re not making a new set of deals there. Instead of wrestling with how to newly apportion things, they import the same compromises into what we call the Electoral College.

I thought that was interesting because it showed how white supremacy was baked in from day one.

That’s right. From day one, basically, the slave states and the small states were advantaged by the Electoral College, but slave states were advantaged more. 

After Reconstruction, you point out that Southern whites actually had even more say in electing the president than before the Civil War, because of the five-fifths clause. And they were not shy about that. 

White Southerners, by and large, don’t seem to have been particularly embarrassed about having disenfranchised African Americans. They still believe their states were entitled to the same amount of power in Congress and in presidential elections. 

I think that that conviction, that notion that our state should carry weight relative to its population, no matter how many people are allowed to vote, becomes deeply embedded in southern political thinking. [North Carolina Democratic Senator] Sam Ervin, who is one of the prime defenders of the Electoral College in the 1960s and into the 1970s, has a locution that at first I found startling and I think I finally understood it. He said the problem with the national popular vote is that it just measures the preferences of “those who happen to vote on the particular election day.” That’s in contrast, in his mind, to representing the full weight of the state. They feel entitled to this representation, entitled to the power that the “five-fifths clause” gives them. 

Going back to the early 20th century, I was struck by the anecdote of Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who ran for Senate attacking the idea of a national popular vote. You quote a campaign pamphlet which says it would  “allow the honest vote of a white man in Alabama to be neutralized by the fraudulent and debauched vote” of women and Black people. 

What I thought was remarkable about the documents that I’d found is it was a primary contest against the one southerner who had advocated a national popular vote. The pamphlet that I was quoting from was really intended for an Alabama audience. And there it becomes very, very clear that the opposition to a national popular vote is grounded in the desire to maintain white supremacy.

In the period of Underwood all the way up to the 1960s, Southern whites benefited from the five-fifths clause. But even after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they still didn’t want to give up the Electoral College. Why do you think the South still came together as a bloc to prevent a national popular vote in 1970, even though Black people were now voting in the South? 

What seems to be the case is that among a number of the senior leaders in Congress, at least, such as Ervin, or Strom Thurmond [of South Carolina] or James Eastland [of Mississippi], yes, the Voting Rights Act had been passed, but they were still hoping that they could roll pieces of it back. The southern states are pressing very, very hard to eliminate the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act since the spring of 1970. And they still believe that something like that can happen. And Thurmond is giving speeches and writing essays that the cause is not lost, we still may be able to contain the impact of this. And if that were the case they were still much better off with the Electoral College than with the national popular vote. 

It makes sense because they stuck out Reconstruction for like 15 years and then that went away.

Exactly. They weren’t happy with the Voting Rights Act, but maybe they could figure out some way around it, some way to reduce its impact, and weren’t about to completely capitulate just because Congress passed this law.

I feel like, at least where we stand in July 2020, that bet paid off. In 2013 preclearance did go away, due to the Supreme Court. And it is easier to be disenfranchised in some of these states, which have erected more barriers to voting. It seems like they made the right bet in terms of preserving their interests.

Alas, I agree with you. The white dominant South has remained the white dominant South in many southern states in terms of presidential elections. You have a large Black Democratic minority, but which is almost certainly not going to win the whole state. In a situation like that having winner-take-all and having the Electoral College serve the advantage of the dominant party. 

This is getting into speculation, but I think in the next 10 years we could see North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas all becoming purple or blue states, and the advantage that Southern whites have enjoyed for 250 years start to go away. Do you see that as a possible turning point in Southern support for the Electoral College?

We’re speculating, but I do think that when one looks at the demographics and the politics of a number of southern states, it seems unlikely that they will be able to present this consistent phalanx of support for Republican presidential candidates. And I think it’s quite possible that if that “solid South” really does crumble or weaken in a significant way, what has become in recent decades the Republican Party’s reflexive opposition to Electoral College reform may really dissipate. I do think that that is a not implausible path towards reform within the next decade. 

We are definitely in a moment where we are thinking about civil rights again, after sort of tabling that for a few decades.

We’ll just put that on the back burner for 40 years.

Right. Your book points out that the closest we got to ending the Electoral College was in 1970, following the civil rights movement with its focus on making the country more small “d” democratic.

That’s exactly right. I think that the resurgence of pro small “d” democratic activism is very important now, and it’s hard to see that Electoral College reform would not be part of that.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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