In a political season marred by racial unrest, the claim that the Electoral College perpetuates white supremacy has become an article of faith among the discontented. The racial critique of our presidential election system is based on two contentions: first, that the framers of our Constitution designed the Electoral College to protect slavery. And second, that the Electoral College today privileges white votes. Both charges are false.
At the Constitutional Convention, the debate over how to select the chief executive focused not on slavery but on balancing the rights of the various states — large and small, northern and southern. Ultimately, the delegates created the Electoral College as a way to give all states a voice in presidential selection.
It is true, of course, that Article I of the Constitution originally counted only three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of congressional apportionment and that Article II indirectly incorporates this compromise by basing the number of presidential electors on the state’s representation in Congress.
But it is important to remember that it was Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention who wanted to fully count the slaves in order to increase the number of representatives they would send to the House of Representatives. (Of course, Southerners had no intention of granting Blacks the privileges of citizenship or the right to vote.) Northern abolitionists did not want to count the slaves at all because this would increase the power of slaveholders in the House.
Under the compromise, which was proposed by abolitionist James Wilson from Pennsylvania as a way to limit the power of slaveholding interests, states were allowed to count only three out of every five slaves for purposes of congressional apportionment.
Because the Electoral College indirectly incorporated this compromise, it gave the South less power in the election of the president than Southern delegates would have preferred. Not coincidentally, when initially considering the Electoral College, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia voted against it, while every free-state supported it.
Ultimately, it was the Electoral College that led to slavery’s destruction: It made Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, even though the vast majority of Americans voted for someone else.
The Civil War that followed, and the subsequent adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, eliminated the three-fifths compromise altogether, rendering it irrelevant to current debates about the Electoral College.
But what of the Electoral College’s supposed disparate impact on minority voters today? Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, claims that the Electoral College advantages white voters by inflating the power of less populous states.
The Electoral College does, indeed, elevate the power of less populous states in order to create balance. This is the very point of the system. But this benefits all of the residents of such states, black, white, native American, Hispanic, Asian, or otherwise. As Josiah Peterson points out in “The Electoral College: Critical to our Republic,” some of these less populous jurisdictions — Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia — have appreciable minority populations whose voices would be significantly diminished in a nationwide popular vote.
Today, Black voters make up only about 12 percent of the American electorate. By basing presidential selection on the results of 51 separate democratic elections, rather than one massive nationwide vote, the Electoral College forces candidates for president to pay attention to multiple states and to significant constituencies within each state.
For this reason, the majority of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, strongly opposed a 1970s-era push to ditch the Electoral College in favor of a nationwide popular vote.
In congressional testimony titled “Save the Electoral College,” Vernon Jordan, representing the National Urban League, worried that a nationwide popular vote would increase the power of minor party candidates like George Wallace and “severely limit [Black voters’] political leverage.” Likewise, Eddie Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, worried that abolishing the Electoral College would constitute “a modern-day version of de facto disenfranchisement.” These Black leaders understood that a national popular vote would not well serve the interests of discrete and insular minorities who benefit from coalition politics.
Far from being racist, the Electoral College protects the interests of anyone in the minority — political, geographic, racial, or otherwise. By contrast, a nationwide popular vote would be, as Ben Franklin purportedly said about democracy, “like two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch.” Anyone who wants to protect the lamb should favor keeping the Electoral College.
Jennifer C. Braceras is director of Independent Women’s Law Center and a former member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.