Given the result of the 2016 presidential election, it’s not surprising Democrats are talking a lot about the Electoral College as the 2020 campaign gets under way. A number of their candidates want it abolished. Race has become a central feature of the debate. Prominent scholars on the left assert the Electoral College was established to safeguard and propagate the institution of slavery, and that alone makes it an abomination. I’m going to chime in.
Slavery was quite clearly on the minds of delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Virginian James Madison stated publicly in mid-July that the South’s black population was a liability in a direct national vote for the office of president. But the final agreement on the Electoral College came six weeks after the notorious compromise granting states seats to the House of Representatives based on their population calculated with slaves counting as three-fifths of a white person. The focus of delegates in their discussion of what would become the Enumeration Clause in Article I was Congress; the branch they believed would be most powerful. Only in the last days of the convention and after having considered many different plans for presidential selection, did the framers settle on the Electoral College. As a form of indirect election that mixed popular democracy with federalism, its appeal was broad.
Setting the motives of delegates aside, the Electoral College forced the South to “play fair.” A simple popular vote would have provided all states with greater incentives to cheat, by falsifying census data and manipulating voting rights, rules, and reported outcomes. Given how easy this would have been at the time, they would surely have done so. The Electoral College has given us a number of elections tainted by accusations of chicanery — 1824, 1876, 1960, and 2000. Before the Civil War, the contests of 1824, 1840, and 1844 were so close in the national popular vote that many Americans would have questioned the result. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln won a precarious popular vote plurality, but a decisive Electoral College majority. Under direct election, Democrats and southerners may well have used legal and political tools to prevent his ascension to the presidency.
The Electoral College was also not “rigged” to produce outcomes conducive to slavery. The three-fifths compromise ensured white adult males in slaveholding states exercised disproportionate influence. But it did not give them an electoral majority. The 1790 census shows, for example, northern non-slaveholding states — I’m excluding Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky that did not join the Confederacy but contained sizeable slave populations — could single-handedly determine the fate of the presidency if they voted as a block. This was true even in 1824 after the small slave states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi — advantaged by the two electors every state receives regardless of population — had joined the Union. That year, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts captured the White House.
The reason only two presidents came from “free” states before 1836 was not the Electoral College, but the North’s incapacity to stick together and unwillingness to offer candidates committed to fighting slavery. With the possible exception of 1812, it wasn’t until 1856 that we have a truly sectional result. The two geographic blocks generally had the same profile — a couple of very large states and a few smaller ones. But the North always had the edge, in both electoral votes and white male population. After 1840, the North grew more rapidly, became more unified, and its candidates won many more presidential elections.
In the same vein, a central attribute of the Electoral College is the winner-take-all or “unit” rule — in which the candidate who gets a plurality of a state’s popular vote wins the entirety of its electors. That’s why we say the really influential states in presidential elections are “battlegrounds,” where the outcome will be close, today places like Florida and Ohio. Each citizen’s vote for the winner there is worth more in the Electoral College than a vote cast for the winner in California or Texas; that is, by someone who lives in a solidly blue or red state.
The data before 1824 are meager but, with the possible exception of 1836, antebellum popular vote outcomes were appreciably closer in northern states. Because the North was divided, the Electoral College’s unit rule inflated the chances of a candidate backed by majority sentiment in its states at the expense of the favorite of a more unified South.
The Electoral College is not the evil institution many claim it to be. I don’t think there’s any doubt it was elitist — electors could act independent of the popular vote in the early years —and retains counter-majoritarian characteristics as we saw in 2016. It has little to nothing, however, to do with race and slavery.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.