“There you go again,” Ronald Reagan famously joked in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter painted an inaccurate picture of one of his policies. Perhaps he’d say the same of those who are distorting the history of the Electoral College today.
New York’s newest congresswoman, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been quick to jump onto this bandwagon, recently labeling the Electoral College a “shadow of slavery’s power on America.” Others have called it a “living symbol of America’s original sin,” an “antiquated relic of slavery,” or even a “pro-slavery compromise.”
Mere hours into the new Congress, a bill was introduced to eliminate this “outdated” system.
Such a view of the Electoral College’s roots threatens to become conventional wisdom, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Obviously, some of the Founders owned slaves. Compromises were made in America’s early years because North and South couldn’t agree on whether to continue the institution. Just as obviously, virtually all Americans today wish that slavery had never existed. It’s a part of America’s heritage that is clearly at odds with America’s founding principles.
That does not mean, however, that the Constitution and its presidential election process are simply a “relic of slavery.” The discussions at the Constitutional Convention were shaped more by the delegates’ study of history and political philosophy, as well as their own experiences with Parliament and the state legislatures. They wanted to avoid the mistakes that had been made in other governments. They sought to establish a better constitution that would stand the test of time.
George Washington expressed this conviction, felt so strongly by the founding generation: “[T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of government,” he concluded, “are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
His words echoed an argument that James Madison had made about a year and a half earlier. Only a republic, Madison had written, “would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” He thought the experiment worthwhile. The Constitution met these criteria.
Nevertheless, some modern commentators brush this history aside and insist that the compromises at the convention were nothing more than attempts to preserve slavery. Americans, they say, have been fooled into thinking that their heritage is more admirable than it is. The specific charges about the Electoral College in this context are inaccurate, but they need to be addressed since they are raised so often.
First, critics sometimes cite the Constitution’s “three-fifths” compromise, which determined how slaves would be counted in apportioning congressional representation. The South wanted to count each slave as a whole person. The North did not want to count slaves at all—a larger population would give the South more voting power. In the end, convention delegates agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.
But did that compromise really do more for the South or for the North?
If slaves had been counted as whole persons (as the South wanted), then the South would have had even more representatives in Congress. In other words, while the three-fifths compromise is often cited as an advantage for the slave-holding South, it can also be interpreted as a win for the North.
One additional nuance complicates an assessment of the three-fifths compromise—the convention applied the same formula for apportioning direct taxes. The North effectively offered the South a compromise: In return for having fewer representatives in Congress, the South would be assessed less in federal taxes.
A more honest assessment of the three-fifths compromise shows what it really concerned—congressional representation and taxation, not the Electoral College. Indeed, the discussions about the compromise and the discussions about the presidential election system were largely separate. The main reason the compromise is cited today is because, late in the convention, it was decided that each state’s electoral vote allocation would match its congressional allocation.
Overriding all these discussions is a much bigger compromise that was brokered between the large and small states: The large states agreed that representation in the Senate would be based on the principle of “one state, one vote.” The small states agreed that representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population.
This blend between the two types of representation was later reflected in the Electoral College, which gives every state three electors, regardless of its size. The rest of the electors are allocated according to population.
Critics of the Electoral College ignore the larger context of the three-fifths compromise, focusing instead on one statement made by Madison. Taken in isolation, it certainly sounds damning.
“The right of suffrage,” he told the convention in July, “was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern states; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the negroes.”
Since Madison mentioned presidential electors in his very next sentence, Electoral College opponents contend that he was proposing such a system in order to increase Southern political power and to protect slavery.
But Madison wasn’t the first to suggest the use of electors that day. Rufus King of Massachusetts had already mentioned them. King was not in favor of slavery. To the contrary, he worked against it during his lifetime. William Paterson of New Jersey, another slavery opponent, also endorsed the concept of electors that day.
The reality is that the discussion that day wasn’t about slavery or the three-fifths compromise. Madison’s statement was a tangent to the main discussion, which revolved around the president’s eligibility for a second term of office. If the president were chosen by the legislature and also eligible for re-election, some delegates feared that he would end up working too hard to satisfy legislators. After all, he’d be worried about winning their support so he could be re-elected. Executive independence would ultimately suffer.
Indeed, Madison made exactly this point just before his now-controversial comment about the “right of suffrage” in the South. “[T]he appointment of the executive should either be drawn from some source,” he told the delegates, “or held by some tenure, that will give him a free agency with regard to the legislature.”
The delegates were discussing separation of powers. Slavery was not their focus. Indeed, the debates about the presidential election process never focused on slavery. Instead, the delegates discussed whether legislative selection or a national popular vote was preferable. The division was between large and small states, not between slave and free states.
Some of the larger states had slaves, some did not. Some of the smaller states had slaves, some did not. All of the small states, however—slave and free—were worried about the dangers of a simple national popular vote. As slavery opponent Gunning Bedford of Delaware had said so eloquently, the small states simply feared that they would be outvoted by the large states time and time again.
The Electoral College had everything to do with balancing power between large and small states in America’s new experiment in self-governance. It had nothing to do with slavery. What an inconvenient truth for those who would like to eliminate the system.
This excerpt was adapted and taken with permission from Tara Ross’ book, “The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule” (Regnery Gateway, 2017). Some punctuation in quotations has been adjusted from the original version.