We’ll never graduate from the Electoral College

11/18/2020

In 2000, a candidate won the popular vote for president but lost the presidency, the first time that happened in 112 years. Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about Electoral College reform. After 2016, there’s been even more. 

Election of the president was a hot-button issue at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the watershed meeting that codified how our new nation would be governed. Founding father and legal scholar James Wilson was the first conventioneer to propose a system for direct election. Unfortunately, the idea was a non-starter for Southern states, where the number of eligible voters was seriously eclipsed by those in more populous Northern states. 

The proposal of an Electoral College, in which votes reflected the size of each state’s congressional delegation, was the first step in a compromise acceptable to smaller and slave-holding states. But it was the three-fifths compromise, another idea advanced by James Wilson, that sealed the deal. 

While slaves didn’t hold the right to vote, including them in the population count was key to appeasing Southern states who eyed greater representation in the House of Representatives and, in turn, in the Electoral College. It was agreed that three out of every five slaves would count toward a state’s population, no small thing at a time when Southern states owned over half a million people. To give smaller states an additional boost, two additional electoral votes were included for each state by way of their two senators. 

Up until the Civil War, the three-fifths compromise gave Southern states an outsized influence on the election of the president and no reason to tinker with the Electoral College system. Examples of this influence are many. For instance, just after the start of the 19th century, Pennsylvania had 10 percent more legal voters than Virginia, but 20 percent fewer electoral votes. It was why white slave holders from Virginia held the office of president for 32 of the nation’s first 36 years. I’d argue that decisions made during the Constitutional Convention were an incentive not only to continue the institution of slavery but also to increase the overall number of slaves.

The Electoral College did have its detractors. In 1803, Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Thatcher complained that “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.” In 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote to fellow Virginian and politician George Hay, calling the system “the most dangerous blot in our constitution.” Although it was often criticized, the college remains little altered from its beginning. In fact, since its adoption there have been over 500 proposals in Congress to change or eliminate it. All to no effect.

In more recent history, the closest we’ve come to a change in the Electoral College followed the 1968 presidential election, when outspoken segregationist Governor George Wallace ran as a candidate on the American Independent Party ticket. He ended up winning five Southern states and 46 electors. His small success served to unite the Republican and Democratic Parties against a common enemy. They were concerned that a strong third-party candidate could assure that no one received the necessary 270 electoral votes, sending the selection of president to the House of Representatives. “I believe the events of 1968 constitute the clearest proof that priority must be accorded to electoral college reform,” President Richard Nixon said. Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat he beat that year, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Congress and the states have let this situation continue for too long. The electoral reform issues raised in the recent election must be acted upon,” and that “Direct election of the president would give each American citizen an equal vote—a fundamental principle of our democratic process.” 

Although the House of Representatives passed an amendment to modify, not abolish, the Electoral College in 1969, it was filibustered to death by a group of Southern senators worried about diluting their political clout. It was the last time a serious effort was made to change the system and a reminder that the vestiges of slavery still have great influence on our politics.

After the 2016 election, it made sense to call for reform, but I’m afraid I’m here to issue a report card that says we shouldn’t expect to graduate from the college anytime soon. The reason is as obvious today as it was in 1787. Small states relish the power they hold over the rest of us and they have no plans to give it up. Just look at the difference in representation between a large state like California and a small one like Wyoming. Wyoming residents receive one electoral vote for every 195,000 people. California receives one for every 712,000 people. But don’t fret, because the Electoral College isn’t your biggest worry anyway. California’s two senators represent 39 million people while Alaska flexes the same amount of legislative muscle with less than 800,000 residents. Shouldn’t we really be talking about abolishing the Senate?

Though I agree in the maxim of one person, one vote, I recognize that power and pragmatics will always rule the day. Just take Donald Trump’s word for it—if you can stomach that. In 2012, he called the Electoral College a “disaster.” More recently he tweeted that, “the electoral college is actually genius.” 

 

Amos Klausner lives in San Geronimo and serves on the local school board.