The Dark Past of the Electoral College

The United States of America is a democracy. The people vote for their own representatives, who in turn implement legislation that benefits their constituents. Americans have a say in the politicians who run the nation, and every single vote counts… in theory. While voter fraud is extremely rare and, especially this election-cycle, highly overexaggerated, the true silencer of American votes is the electoral college. Because of the electoral college, the candidate that the majority of Americans wish to represent their interests and beliefs is not necessarily the winner, which has become a serious issue. If the electoral college does not benefit Americans, and in some cases tangibly harms them and takes away their democratic rights, why do we still use it? The truth is that the electoral college has been disenfranchising Americans since its conception, and the only way to stop the pain is through its abolition. 


The simplest question regarding the electoral college is why such a complicated system was implemented at all? The founding fathers had a few reasons why.  First of all, the electoral college was just another attempt at quieting the complaints of small states. By providing every state with at least three electoral votes, every state, no matter how small, is important in securing the victory of a presidential candidate. More importantly, in 18th century colonial America, information did not travel very easily. Citizens across the country, especially in rural areas, would lack sufficient information about each individual candidate to accurately assess their preference for president. Without generally understood policies assigned to each candidate, how could an American learn all they needed to know about a vast field of potential candidates to make their best decisions? In order to account for the uninformed population, educated upper-class electors were trusted to make the final decision on who achieves the most important, influential role of the nation. Originally, the runner-up of the presidential election became the Vice President as a measure to ensure that all Americans will have a politician they favor in government without the use of political parties. However, in 1804, the 12th amendment addressed the existence of political parties (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans) by allowing each party to designate a president and vice-president. By indoctrinating the concept of a two-party system, such parties could develop distinct platforms, making it far easier for Americans to decide which candidate they align with. Additionally, decades after the founding fathers created the electoral college, accessibility to information improved greatly and rapidly. As industrialization gave more people access to roads, railroads, and the postal service, information traveled much faster and it became much easier for the average American to be an informed voter. Without justification to worry about voters accessing enough information to select their favored candidate, why did we continue to rely on the electoral college? The reason is not shocking considering the history of our nation: racism. 


When James Wilson proposed a direct national election system for president at the Philadelphia convention, James Monroe swiftly rejected the idea. Rather than discussing the more logical aforementioned reasons for the electoral college, he explained the South would never agree to a direct election. The reason? The North would quickly end slavery. Since there were far more eligible voters in the North than in the South, any president with the most popular votes would likely have been decided by the North, which had no reason to support pro-slavery candidates. However, by implementing the ever-infamous ⅗ clause, the South could exploit the immense number of slaves (who obviously could not vote) in order to gain political power through the electoral college. In fact, the ⅗ clause even provided an incentive for southern states to increase the number of slaves, as that, in turn, increased the number of electors. After the 1800 census, Pennsylvania had 10% more free people than Virginia but still received 20% less electoral votes due to Virginia’s sheer amount of slaves. Because of the incredible advantage held by southern states due to slavery, it is certain that “without the extra electoral college votes generated by slavery, the mostly southern states that supported Jefferson would not have sufficed to give him a majority”. 


As is true in most of American history, the history of the electoral college is far more insidious than expected. The predominant narrative today is that the electoral college was only implemented to ensure that the right candidate got elected in an age where information took weeks to travel miles away. However, the real reason for the persistence of the institution through the implementation of party platforms and ease of accessible information is the South’s advantages in slavery. Even though they were objects to their white masters, lacking any pay, representation, or basic human respect, slaves were used to gain political power through the electoral college.