If there was ever a perfect time to reconsider everything you thought you understood about politics — from what purpose the police serves to what our history textbooks really teach us about racism — 2020 is that time. And, as we endure a particularly contentious election season, alongside the ongoing racial reckoning in America, the much-maligned history of the Electoral College should be at the forefront of our conversations.
The Electoral College is one of those American institutions that most people in the country know exists, some people have a basic understanding of, but few actually know its origins — or could defend its continued existence. It’s something that is only ever really thought about once every four years, and yet is arguably the most important part of our current voting process, and responsible for the fact that two of the presidential elections in the last 20 years — in 2000 and 2016 — were won by the candidates with far fewer votes. Because, while the popular vote captures the will of the people, it’s the Electoral College is actually the ultimate decider of who wins the presidency.
Before getting into the history of the Electoral College, here’s a primer in how it works: Every four years when we vote for president, we are actually voting for our state’s slate of electors, rather than directly deciding who will win. Each state is allotted electors based on the number of representatives it has in Congress, and those combined 538 electors formally decide who the president will be. A candidate needs an absolute majority of electors, meaning 270 or more, to win the Electoral College. And because all of a state’s electors go to one candidate, the presidential race most often comes down to several electors in one or two key states — swing states — which hold outsized power in the process relative to their population.
Sounds pretty undemocratic, right? Sure, but this isn’t a “flaw” in the system, this is how it was intended to work. The Electoral College was built this way to protect and preserve the power of Southern states, whose official population counts were far lower than those in the North, because of the huge amount of disenfranchised people living in the South — that is, enslaved people. It didn’t have to be this way: When this country’s framers attended the Constitutional Convention and set out to decide how to elect a president, they discussed the idea of utilizing the popular vote to decide elections. But, Southerners worried that direct democracy would disadvantage slave-holding states.
“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 Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections,” James Madison wrote in the Method of Appointing the Executive in 1787.
The Electoral College was the compromise the founders settled on to appease the demands of Southern states worried their politics — or, more specifically, their desire to maintain the system of slavery — might be quashed. Its existence allowed Southern states — and their white male property-owning voters — to preserve their power in part due to the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which stated that enslaved Black people would be counted as three-fifths of a person, thus bolstering the electoral count of slave-owning states without actually affording rights to anyone other than wealthy white men. It also gave disproportionate power to the Southern states. It’s no surprise, then, that eight of the first nine presidential races were won by Virginians; it was the most populous state at the time, with a huge slave population — even though it didn’t have the most enfranchised voters.
“In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge percentage of its population was slaves, and slaves couldn’t vote. But an Electoral College allows states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that’s what gave the South the inside track in presidential elections,” Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, told Vox.
Two centuries after its founding, the Electoral College continues to uphold white supremacy and disadvantage much of the electorate — particularly the Black people who live in Southern states, and whose votes are often overpowered by the will of electors, with most Southern states staying red in recent presidential elections. That’s why today, presidential candidates expend a significant amount of their effort on winning over states that hold the most influence, resulting in disproportionate attention paid to “swing” areas.
To combat the electors’ ability to defy the people’s choice and vote for a candidate they preferred but who didn’t carry the popular vote in their state, the Supreme Court took matters into its own hands. In a unanimous ruling in July of this year, the highest court in the land decided that electors must support the will of the people. “The State instructs its electors that they have no ground for reversing the vote of millions of its citizens. That direction accords with the Constitution — as well as with the trust of a Nation that here, We the People rule,” Justice Elena Kagan stated in the ruling. Despite this, many states — including swing states like Florida and Ohio — have no legal requirements about how electors must vote.
In his new book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, the Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar examines why the outdated system continues and explains how it still disempowers Black people today. Through his research on the attempts to abolish the system and champion the popular vote, Keyssar offers encouragement that there is hope for us to radically shift our democracy. Ultimately, Keyssar provides hope that mass movements of people can radically expand and change the way democracy works by demanding a reimagining of our governments. “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,” Keyssar said in an interview with Mother Jones.
Although there have been attempts to put an end to the Electoral College — more than 1,000 to be exact — with more recent shots in the dark including the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, clearly no one has yet succeeded in abolishing it. Considering its success in winning Republicans the election for George W. Bush in 2000 and for Trump in 2016, despite the fact that both candidates won fewer popular votes than their Democratic rivals, Republicans, in particular, have clung to the Electoral College as a necessary part of American democracy. It’s far from it.
In 2020, it’s particularly important to understand the origins of the Electoral College and who it serves to keep in power, because the mass movements necessary for this reimagining of government are happening now. With Black Lives Matter protests — which have demanded the abolition of harmful systems like the prison industrial complex and the police force — there are more people pushing for change than ever before. Movements like these show that the power to defeat age-old systems that aren’t working anymore — and never worked for vulnerable, marginalized communities in the first place — is on the side of the people.
No matter what happens in November, the movements that continue to build in cities across America, including Portland, New York, and Minneapolis, show that nothing is set in stone simply because of tradition and norms. With an insurgency of Americans who demand the popular vote as law, we could see racist systems like the Electoral College come toppling down sooner rather than later.
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