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Electoral College: a living monument to slavery's folly

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Electoral College: a living monument to slavery's folly

Stephen H. Provost

I told myself I wasn’t going to blog about politics again for a while, but since I didn’t tell anyone else (until now), I’m safe, right?

Even if I’m not, I don’t care, because this Electoral College thing is really sticking in my craw – and not because of how it affected the current election. That’s over and done with, but the E.C. is still with us, enshrined in the very Constitution it contradicts (more on that later) and giving rural voters a built-in advantage over those of us in big states and big cities.

I live in one of those big states: California. And the most common argument I hear in favor of the E.C. runs something like this: “We wouldn’t want those people in California deciding the next president, would we?”

Being one of “those people,” I take offense.

Oh, sure, it’s fine the give tiny Vermont and Iowa an outsized say in who gets nominated. Aren’t they cute little states? Don’t they just make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? But if, as a Californian, I object that my general election ballot is worth less than half a Wyoming voter’s vote, I’m a big bad bully.

Geography vs. democracy

For comparison’s sake, imagine that each vote cast in Alice Springs, a town of 27,000 in Australia’s central desert, was worth more than a ballot filled out in Sydney, where 21% of the country’s people. Or that a vote in northern Russia was counted more heavily than one cast in Moscow (assuming Putinland had a functioning democracy) just because Siberia covers 77 percent of that nation’s land area.

Unfair is unfair, no matter where you happen to live. And we’re talking about the United States, here, the self-described beacon of democratic freedom.

It can be argued the E.C. was never about democracy. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College was meant to reflect “the sense of the people” while entrusting the actual selection to “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances of favorable deliberation.” He wanted to make sure no one would ever become president unless he was “endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

But if that’s what the founders wanted, they don’t have it now. The modern Electoral College neither reflects “the sense of the people” nor does it allow for any analysis or deliberation. Many electors are compelled by law to vote for candidates based on the popular vote, eliminating any check against an unqualified candidate winning office while, at the same time, potentially forcing them to participate in the election of someone who doesn’t reflect the overall sense of the people.

So, the modern Electoral College is a failure on both counts.

What it does succeed in doing is thumbing its nose at the concept of one person, one vote: the principle of equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The argument that it’s meant to reflect geographic influence only amplifies the problem. Geographic areas aren’t people, any more than corporations are, and granting them de facto voting rights makes about as much sense as scheduling a debate between Mount Lassen and Old Faithful.

A Constitution at odds with itself

Defenders of the E.C. try to explain that the Electoral College protects “rural America” from being buried under an avalanche of votes from the big cities. It preserves “geographic diversity,” they say – as though that’s the only kind of diversity that exists in this country. Never mind racial diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity and so forth.

But wait. Say you want to try inflating the value of a person’s vote based on any of those factors. You can’t, because the 14th Amendment won’t let you. It was put in place expressly to prevent that from happening. Otherwise, there would be nothing to keep people in the majority from depriving African-Americans (or anybody else) of their right to vote, just because they happened to feel like it. The way the old South did.

Nothing, that is, except for the Electoral College. Under this system, votes in predominantly white rural areas do count more than votes from inner cities in densely populated states … where more African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities just happen to live.

Hmmmm.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, because the E.C. was created largely for the benefit of slave owners in Southern states who wouldn’t allow blacks to vote but also couldn’t stomach the idea of being badly outnumbered by free-state citizens in a straight popular vote. The Electoral College allowed them to have it both ways: They could count each slave as a fraction of a voter (three-fifths, to be exact) – even though those slaves didn’t actually vote. It was either ingenious or diabolical, depending on your point of view.

As James Madison put it: "The right of suffrage was much more diffusive (or widespread) in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes."

The Electoral College gave them that influence. Along with such contrivances as the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it was designed to balance the interests of free and slave states, often by bending over backwards to placate the latter. Even so, the goal ultimately proved unattainable.

The house of cards came crashing down when the South seceded and started the Civil War. Then, when the North won, it granted African-Americans the right to vote and passed the 14th Amendment, enshrining the principle of one man, one vote in the Constitution. Everything that had been put in place to preserve the power of slave owners was swept aside.

Except the Electoral College, because it was already in the Constitution.

The E.C. remained in place even though it could no longer fulfill the purpose for which it was created: to help slave states. There no longer were any slave states. Or slaves. Just a bunch of pissed off former slaveholders who – despite the 14th Amendment – sought to keep blacks from voting by imposing things such as poll taxes, literacy tests and a host of other barriers later deemed to be unconstitutional.

Definitions of diversity

Here’s the upshot: Thanks to its place in the Constitution, the E.C. not only outlived its relevance, it preserved a power structure designed to bolster slavery – which was, most people would agree, an inherently unfair social system.

Is it any surprise that the E.C. is itself inherently unfair?

Rooted in an era before equal protection, it preserves the very framework that propped up the antebellum South. It’s a living relic of the slavery era that still manages to accomplish what poll taxes and literacy tests cannot: maximizing the rural white vote – just as it was intended to do. The Electoral College isn’t about preserving geographic diversity, it’s about constraining the kind of racial and ethnic diversity one finds in urban areas of highly populated states.

Embedded in the Constitution, the E.C. flies in the face of the 14th Amendment – which is part of this very same document.

It’s all but immune to reform, because the Constitution designed to be difficult to change (even when it contradicts itself). We citizens only seem to question it when it doesn’t match the popular vote, and the people it raises to power in such circumstance have less incentive than anyone else to challenge it.

I’m not saying you are a racist if you defend the Electoral College. What I am saying is that it was created in part to perpetuate racial inequality, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it does so. You can be resigned to it or even argue for it, but please don’t pretend it’s either fair or democratic. Land masses don’t vote. Slaves couldn’t, either.

As for California, it never was a slave state, but it and other urban centers remain chained to a skewed system that was designed to perpetuate a slave culture.

The moral of the story: If we want to be a free society, we should damned well start acting like one.