The Problematic Truth About The Origins Of The Electoral College

One of the weirdest parts of U.S. democracy is the remarkably undemocratic Electoral College. As angry voters will tell you, two of the last three American presidents were elected despite losing the popular vote. Today, Time Magazine reports that 53% of voters support ending this bizarre institution. How did this nonsense get started, though?

Well, the first thing to understand about the Electoral College is that it was designed to be anti-democratic. Back when the Constitution was written, it was proposed as a compromise to ease tensions between those who wanted the U.S. to operate via a popular vote, and their opponents who wanted it to be Congress, not the people, who elected presidents. However, there's a deeper, more sinister aspect to the Electoral College's origins that often gets glossed over: namely, that the whole thing is rooted in racism, oppression, and slavery. 

Racism is at the heart of the Electoral College

Yes, the Electoral College was, and is, a racist institution.

Remember, the United States was fighting over slavery long before the Civil War, all the way back to the writing of the Constitution. When the Founding Fathers were putting this thing together, representatives of the southern states had some pointed issues with the idea of direct, popular vote democracy, because the northern states had much bigger voting populations, as pointed out by The Atlantic: in other words, heavily populated states like Massachusetts would have a way bigger say in political issues than, say, Georgia. However, the southern states figured out that if they counted the massive slave populations toward their totals, things would be more equal — but on the other hand, they didn't want to allow their slaves to be voters. 

So, in figuring out a way for northern and southern states to have equal influence on the country's future, a ludicrous deal called the "three-fifths compromise" was proposed: this meant that a slave would count as three-fifths of a person, meaning they could be included toward a state's population count (thus, allowing for more government representation, in regard to the Electoral College) while simultaneously being forbidden from voting. In other words, a state's Electoral vote distribution would be based on the population, including slaves, but only the non-slaves would be permitted to vote on behalf of said population. 

Now, to be clear, this central, racist tenet — and the way it tries to control the vote — didn't vanish after slavery ended. Even today, as PBS explains, this structure continues to suppress the votes of minority groups, particularly when you also take into account issues such as mass incarceration and the U.S. prison system, according to Prison Policy Initiative. With all this in mind, it's easy to see why so many people today are calling to end the Electoral College, whether through a constitutional amendment, or clever backdoor solutions like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is trying to make a national popular vote into a reality on a state-by-state basis.