The Electoral College:
Set Up to Protect Slavery, Today Enforcing White Supremacy
December 19, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.5 million votes. But the Electoral College decides who becomes president. And the Electoral College will—if things remain on course—make Donald Trump the next president.
What is the Electoral College? In short, it is an institution that was set up to protect slavery and one that continues today to be an instrument for enforcing white supremacy.
“The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College”
How does the Electoral College work? Each state is assigned a number of votes in the Electoral College more or less based on population. And in almost every state, all the state’s Electoral College votes go to the candidate who gets the most votes from voters.
What’s behind that? In an article appropriately titled “The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College,” legal historian Paul Finkelman writes, “the records of the [founding Constitutional] Convention show that in fact the connection between slavery and the [Electoral] college was deliberate, and very much on the minds of many delegates, including James Madison.”
Madison and others who wrote the U.S. Constitution aimed to create a unified, powerful state that could stand up to domination or interference by European powers, carry out genocide and theft of land from the Native peoples, and enforce exploitation in the form of capitalist wage-slavery as well as outright enslavement of Black people. As part of promoting the illusion that “We the people” were running society, the framers of the constitution deemed it important to extend the right to vote, including for president, to large numbers of white people. And to exclude slaves and Native peoples (and women) from that right. (For an understanding of the implications of this arrangement and how central it is to the history and present day nature of the U.S., see Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, by Bob Avakian.)
But... having the president elected by popular vote posed “one difficulty ... of a serious nature,” as Madison put it. Madison, one of the most influential of the “Founding Fathers,” noted that the “right of suffrage 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.” In other words: if the president really was elected on the basis of one man, one vote, the slave states would not have sufficient say in national politics.
Madison himself was a slave owner. So were just under half of the other authors of the U.S. Constitution. And as a condition of signing on to the Constitution, they demanded influence in government beyond the number of white voters in the South.
The “solution” the founders of the U.S. came up was this: First, for purposes of representation in the national government, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Slaves were not really considered human beings; they were considered property, deprived of any rights at all, and at the total mercy of merciless slave owners. But they got counted for the purpose of figuring out how much representation slave states would have in the government. White voters in slave states were essentially given a huge number of extra Electoral College votes each through this “three-fifths rule.”
An Instrument to Enforce White Supremacy
Even after the formal end of slavery, the Electoral College has continued to give greatly disproportionate influence to votes of white people. This was a deciding factor in the election of Donald Trump.
For most of the first 100 years after the Civil War, Black people in the South were still counted for purposes of assigning votes in the Electoral College. In fact, they were counted as a full person, not just three-fifths of a person. But through KKK terror and discriminatory laws, Black people were overwhelming prevented from even registering to vote in the South.
That changed in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed only after massive and courageous sacrifice by Black people in the South, and other people, Black and white—especially students—from around the country. To some extent, these laws ended the racist voter registration requirements that prevented millions of Black people from voting.
But those advances have been dramatically rolled back. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court basically stripped the Voting Rights Act of any real enforcement power (in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder). For example, shortly after the evisceration of the Voting Right Act, a “Voter ID” law went into effect in Alabama. It was intended to, and did, drive Black people off the voting rolls. A lawsuit challenging Alabama’s Voter ID law pointed out that a disproportionate number of disfranchised voters are African-American and Latino and predicted that in the 2016 election Alabama’s Voter ID law would disenfranchise more than 280,000 citizens in the state.
Voter ID laws are based on lies that there is massive voter fraud (read: massive Black and Latino voter fraud). Trump froths at the mouth about “millions of people who voted illegally” in the last election. There is no evidence that anything like that is true, and many serious studies that prove it is not true. But what is true is that nationwide, 13 percent of African-Americans do not have photo IDs; five percent of white people do not have photo IDs (American National Elections Study, 2012).
And Southern states have increasingly kept Black people from voting by closing polling places. In the 2016 presidential election, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas reduced or closed a huge number of polling places.
Most states have laws that disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony. Since Black people are disproportionally convicted of felonies, these laws unequally impact Black people—in fact, over two million Black people are barred from voting due to a past conviction. (One in 13 Black people has been disenfranchised in this way, the figure for white people is one in 54.)
Further, the Electoral College system gives greatly weighted value to the sparsely populated, more rural states—which are predominantly white—because each state gets three votes in the Electoral College regardless of its population (any additional votes are proportional to population). And Republican-dominated state legislatures frequently engage in gerrymandering—drawing congressional and state legislature districts in ways that isolate and minimize the impact of non-white voters—which can then only be challenged through a protracted battle in the courts which may or may not overturn these plans. In turn, this has made it easier for these state governments to pass Voter ID and other discriminatory laws, furthering their dominance.
* * *
Today, as in slave days, Black people are “counted” in allotting Electoral College votes. But millions of them do not have the right to vote. And so—as was the case under slavery—the Electoral College remains an institution that serves to multiply the power of white voters in the South. And while not the focus of this article, the Electoral College setup works to disenfranchise Latino and Native Americans as well.
Donald Trump was elected through the Electoral College, which was set up to protect the interests of slave owners and that today still serves to protect white supremacy. That is not a legitimate election, and he is not a legitimate president.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.