Another Monument to White Supremacy That Should Come Down? The Electoral CollegeHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Electoral College, book, interview
We are in a moment of reckoning over racism, not only taking down Confederate statues to eradicate these lingering odes to white supremacy but also examining how deeply our society has been shaped by slavery and its aftermath. Last year, the New York Times’ 1619 Project traced the influence of slavery on everything from American capitalism to the American diet. Today, individuals, brands, and lawmakers are taking stock. In this reappraisal, the Electoral College is likewise due for a second look.
In the last five elections, the Electoral College has handed the presidency to two Republicans who lost the popular vote: George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Looking ahead to the election this November, Democrats harbor a very realistic fear that Trump will again prevail without winning the popular vote. The political divisions and demographics of the 21st century have highlighted the undemocratic Electoral College system. But the fact that we have an election system that privileges a minority white party over a diverse majority is not a quirk of the system. That has been its purpose all along.
In his new book, Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar sets out to answer the question that is also the title of his book: Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? Keyssar, who is an expert in surveying a topic throughout American history, including his seminal work on the history of voting rights in the United States, begins at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and works his way up to the present, examining how the framers created the Electoral College, then each successive attempt to reform or abolish it.
The Electoral College allots votes to each state based on its number of representatives in Congress—which is based on a highly imperfect approximation of population that gives short shrift to populous states, plus two for each senator. The result is that not everyone’s vote carries the same weight; in 2016, Wyoming had one electoral vote for every 190,000 residents while in California each vote represented 680,000 people.
It is conventional wisdom that the Electoral College system was a compromise to induce small states to join the union. Almost 250 years after the Constitution was written, it is widely assumed that the Electoral College is here to stay because small states would refuse to give up their disproportionate power. But it turns out that is a narrative prime for debunking. Keyssar found that attempts to elect the president through a national popular vote have been thwarted not by small states but instead by the white leaders of southern ones, who viewed the system as key to maintaining white supremacy.
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