American elections have experienced several identical crises in which one of the major presidential candidates wins the popular vote and the other wins the electoral college — and the White House. This occurred in the Clinton v. Trump race of 2016, the Bush v. Gore race of 2000, as well as in 1824, 1876, and 1888. While more Americans are coming to understand the anti-democratic nature of the electoral college, its origins are still largely unknown, particularly as they relate to race.
The electoral college is an echo of white supremacy and the enslavement of blacks.
As the Constitution was formed in the late 1780s, Southern politicians and slave-owners at the Constitutional Convention had a problem. Northerners were going to get more seats in the House of Representatives, which were to be determined by population, if blacks weren’t counted as people. Southern states had sizable populations, but large portions were disenfranchised slaves and freemen (South Carolina, for instance, was nearly 50% black). This prompted slave-owners, most of whom considered blacks by nature somewhere between animals and whites, to push for slaves to be counted as fully human for political purposes. They needed blacks for greater representative power for Southern states. Northern states, seeking an advantaged position, opposed counting slaves as people. This interesting reversal brought about the 3/5ths Compromise most of us know, which determined an African American would be worth 3/5ths of a person, to boost the presence and political influence of Southerners in Congress.
The electoral college was largely a solution to the same problem. True, it partly served to keep power out of the hands of ordinary people and in the hands of the elites, but race and slavery were undeniable factors. As the Electoral College Primer put it, Southerners feared “the loss in relative influence of the South because of its large nonvoting slave population.” They were afraid the direct election of the president would put them at a numerical disadvantage. To put it bluntly, Southerners were upset their states didn’t have more white people.
For example, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina remarked at the Convention, during debate on a popular election of the president: “The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succede [sic]. This will not be Virga. however. Her slaves will have no suffrage.” Williamson imagined that voters would favor candidates from their own state, giving states with high populations an advantage in choosing the president. But a great number of people in Virginia were slaves. Would this mean that Virginia and other states didn’t have the numbers of whites to affect the presidential election as much as the large Northern states?
The writer of the Constitution, slave-owner and future American president James Madison, thought so. He said that
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…
Remember, at this time people largely viewed themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers first, Americans second. The nation was an alliance of rather independent states. A Virginian would want to make sure his state had as much power to choose the president as New York. But, looking around, there seemed to be just as many nonvoting blacks as voting whites in Virginia. Thus the fear that there existed a lack of voting whites, and thus the aversion to a popular vote.
In hindsight, we know that these fears were unfounded, thanks to the first U.S. census in 1790, conducted a few years later. Virginia was the most populous state by far at the time, with nearly 700,000 people, nearly 300,000 of them slaves. But the state population excluding slaves still made Virginia one of the most populous states, rivaling for instance New York (340,000 people, 6.2% slave) and Pennsylvania (434,000 people, 1% slave). Smaller states like Georgia (83,000 people, 36% slave) or Delaware (59,000 people, 15% slave) would have been at numerical disadvantages compared to smaller Northern states like Rhode Island (69,000 people, 1.4% slave), but such small gaps likely wouldn’t have justified vetoing the popular election of the president — plus if “the largest State” was “sure to succede” then the gap between the smaller states didn’t matter anyway.
Regardless, the question for Southerners was: How could one make the total population count for something, even though much of the population (slaves, women, Indians, whites without property, and others) couldn’t vote? How could black bodies be used to increase Southern political power? Counting slaves helped put more Southerners in the House of Representatives, and now counting them — in an indirect election — would help put more Southerners in the White House.
Led by Madison, Southerners pushed for an indirect system of electing the chief executive in which each state would appoint “electors” that would cast their votes for president. The number of electors would be based on how many members of Congress each state possessed — which recall was affected by counting a black American as 3/5ths of a person. While it changed as the nation grew, today we have 538 electors. Each state has one elector per representative in the House, plus two for the state’s two senators (435 + 100 + 3 for D.C. = 538). In this way, the number of electors was still based on population (not the whole population, as blacks were not counted as full persons), even though a massive part of the America population in 1787 could not vote. The greater a state’s population, the more electors it had and the more power to influence who won the White House.
This worked out pretty well for the racists. “For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency,” notes Akhil Reed Amar. The advantage didn’t go unnoticed. Massachusetts congressman Samuel Thatcher complained in 1803, “The representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election.”
Today, the electors are chosen by the political parties at state conventions, through committees, or by the presidential candidates. It depends on the state. The electors could be anyone really, but are usually involved with the parties, retired politicians, or just close allies. In 2016, electors include Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Jr. When we go to vote on November 8, we’re not actually voting for the candidates. We’re voting on whether to award decision-making power to Democratic or Republican electors. 538 people will cast their votes and the candidate who receives a majority of 270 votes will win.
Once we determine which party’s electors get to have all the fun, the electors can essentially vote for whomever they want. The power is out of the people’s hands. Now, they were chosen specifically because of their loyalty, and “faithless electors” are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean they will always vote for the candidate you elected them to vote for. There have been 85 electors in U.S. history that abstained or changed their vote on a whim. More had to change their votes after a candidate died.
Now, the “worthlessness” of your vote depends on your state.
The major problem of the electoral college is that all states except Maine and Nebraska are all-or-nothing when electors are awarded. As a candidate, winning by a single citizen vote grants you all the electors from the state. If X number of people vote Democrat in Texas and Y number vote Republican, and Y > X, the votes of everyone who voted Democrat is meaningless. It’s as if they didn’t vote at all. They are counted in the popular vote, but that doesn’t determine the next president. For Texas, 38 Republican electors would be given the power to cast their votes for the Republican candidate; the potential Democratic electors go home. There’s a reason Democrats don’t campaign in Texas and Republicans don’t campaign in California.
Instead, they campaign in states where 1) you’re not sure what the voting populace is going to do and 2) a lot of electors are on the line. Unless you live in one of these “swing” states, like Ohio or Florida, your vote means nothing if you’re a political minority, a liberal in a red state or a conservative in a blue state. The electoral college takes away the voice of the minority, state by state. In swing states, where both parties have a fighting chance, your vote matters very much. In other states that consistently lean right or left, your vote matters very little — unless you can somehow turn a minority into a majority, which tends to only happen over long periods of time.
As if that wasn’t absurd enough, it is entirely possible to win just 21.8% of the popular vote and win the presidency. While extremely unlikely, it is possible. Not only is your vote worth less in “safe” states, it is worth less in bigger states, too. Recall that each state will have two electors (based on two senators) and at least one more (based on how many House representatives said state has). This means that sparsely populated states, like Wyoming, have three electors for 585,000 people — or one elector for every 195,000 people. A heavily populated state like California has 55 electoral votes and 39 million people, or one elector for every 709,000 people. This means small states actually have disproportionate power in the electoral college, and if a candidate swept the small and medium states, even while losing all the big ones, he or she could win with just 21.8% of the popular vote.
It also just so happens that less populous states tend to be very white, and more populous states more diverse, meaning disproportionate white decision-making power. As Bob Wing writes, because “in almost every election white Republicans out-vote [blacks, most Democrats] in every Southern state and every border state except Maryland” the “Electoral College result was the same as if African Americans in the South had not voted at all.”
While the electoral college system made citizen votes in smaller states worth more than those in larger states, it cannot be said that strengthening smaller states was a serious concern at the Convention. Legal historian Paul Finkleman writes that
in all the debates over the executive at the Constitutional Convention, this issue never came up. Indeed, the opposite argument received more attention. At one point the Convention considered allowing the state governors to choose the president but backed away from this in part because it would allow the small states to chose one of their own.
In other words, they weren’t looking out for the little guy. Political scientist George C. Edwards III stresses, “Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that relied on slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states.” Even if the argument that “we need the Electoral College so small states can actually help choose the president” made sense in a bygone era where people viewed themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers, not Americans, it makes no sense today. People now see themselves as simply Americans — as American citizens choosing an American president. Why should where you live determine the power of your vote? Why not simply have everyone’s vote be equal?
Well, there remains strong support for the electoral college among conservatives because it aids Republican candidates like Bush and Trump. The popular vote, in an increasingly diverse, liberal country, doesn’t serve conservative interests. If Republicans (who have won the popular vote just once since 1992) lost presidential elections due to the electoral college after winning the popular vote, they’d perhaps see its unfair nature.
Fortunately, the electoral college will one day be a thing of the past. 11 states, largely Democrat-controlled, have signed the National Popular Vote compact, “a deal wherein states commit to send their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote — but only once states representing over half of all electoral votes adopt similar laws. Once that threshold is reached, the electoral college is effectively abolished, without a constitutional amendment” (Washington Post). These 11 states hold 165 electoral college votes, meaning states worth just 105 more votes need to join before the majority is captured.
Then at last this anti-democratic vestige of slavery will disappear. The people will directly choose the president, and each vote will be worth much and worth the same. A popular vote is, after all, how all other political races in this country are determined, and is standard among the majority of the world’s democracies.