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The Racist Roots of the Electoral College

Issue 220

Indy Staff Dec 20, 2016

Although the United States is a relatively new nation, it actually follows the oldest existing constitution still in use today. While some take such a fact as evidence of the firm bedrock our democracy rests on, it also means we have to remind ourselves where certain procedures originate. 

This is especially the case after the presidential election we just witnessed, in which a man who lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million will become president.  

Way back during the hot summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention was under way in Philadelphia and the delegates from Virginia had a problem. It was the most populous state in the new nation but approximately 40 percent of its inhabitants were enslaved. 

Any democracy, this thing that tens of thousands of people had only just recently fought and died for, that relied on a popular vote alone to determine its leaders would subordinate the interests of slave-masters in Virginia and other southern states to those of free voters in the north. Enslaved persons, after all, were not considered human let alone citizens with voting privileges. 

At the insistence of Virginia’s James Madison a compromise was worked out among the 55 delegates in Independence Hall. Each state would be granted two representatives in the Senate while in the lower House of Representatives, representation was slotted in proportion to each state’s population. Slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person. 

The Electoral College too, “was an integral part of the odious pro-slavery three-fifths compromise” as Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar points out in his recent offering, The Constitution Today. As in the House, slave-economy states were given disproportionate representation in the Electoral College. 

This worked out well for Virginia as 12 of the 46 electoral votes originally needed to capture an electoral college majority went to the state, and its plantation aristocrats, Madison among them, held the presidency for 32 of America’s first 36 years. 

Today, the Electoral College’s place in our democracy tends to be forgotten, an arcane formality from the days of yore. We’ve tended not to notice it unless it is in contradiction with the popular vote, as was the case in 1876, 1888, 2000 and now. In this respect, Trump’s victory is a kind of slave-masters’ revenge.

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