Recently, Rev. Jesse Jackson made headlines saying that as we get rid of Confederate statues we should also get rid of the Electoral College. He complains that the historic institution, by which America chooses its presidents, has twice stolen the White House from Democrats, but the overall implication of his claims is that the Electoral College is racist.
He’s wrong on two fronts.
First, the college didn’t steal the elections from Al Gore in 2000 or Hillary Clinton in 2016. Neither Gore nor Clinton received more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and we don’t know how the more than four million Gary Johnson voters or three-quarter million Evan McMullin voters would have voted in a runoff between Trump and Clinton. More importantly, absent the Electoral College candidates would have campaigned differently. Clinton lost because she neglected too many non-coastal states.
The second charge, the charge of racism, is more subtle. The claim that the college is racist can be made two ways. First, that the college was designed as racist by giving more clout to slave states than they would have had under a popular vote model. Second, that boosting the influence of low-population states today effectively boosts the whiter states in the nation.
The former claim is plausible because Southern states did effectively have more representation through the college than they might have had under a popular vote of all free persons. But the oft-maligned Three-Fifths Clause was designed to limit the influence of slave states in congressional apportionment. Since congressional apportionment determines the number of a state’s electors—one for each representative and senator in Congress—limiting Southern representation in Congress limited their representation in the Electoral College.
A popular vote for president was not a viable alternative to the Electoral College considered at the Constitutional Convention. Convention delegates feared that popular executives could too easily turn into popular autocrats, as the annals of history repeatedly show. Additionally, the delegates weren’t convinced the average voter would know enough about the requirements for office or the qualifications of candidates to be able to make an informed decision. The Electoral Compromise was a compromise that allowed people to choose representatives—electors—to elect the president on their behalf.
The proponents of the college weren’t motivated by racism. Oliver Ellsworth, the “Father of the Electoral College,” twice asked the Convention to consider banning slavery in the Constitution. Northern states supported the institution, while the only votes against it came from Southern states.
Since the abolition of slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment (passed due to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln, who won in 1860 with less than 40 percent of the popular vote), the institution of slavery cannot pervert the Electoral College system.
The idea that the college is racist today because it boosts the influence of predominantly white, rural states is also flawed. The college supports low-population states regardless of their racial makeup. While Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Vermont are disproportionately white, the college also boosts Delaware, Washington DC, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Mexico, some of the most diverse regions of the country. Without the Electoral College, all of these states would have their influence subsumed under large population centers like New York and Los Angeles. No state would have signed on to a system that stripped them of any chance of influence, and no state should want that now.
The Electoral College facilitates the joining of the states in union. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Voting Rights Act made it better still. If we also want it to check demagogues we should consider restoring the independence of electors to serve as real intermediaries between the popular will and the presidency.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly labeled the proper amendment to the U.S. Constitution.