As America moved from considering itself a republic, or, as we sometimes say, a democratic republic, to thinking of itself as simply a democracy, the Electoral College has been challenged for being insufficiently democratic. Though the way we elect presidents has changed and democratized over time, the basic institution has proven resilient in the face of the many attempts to abolish it outright.
In recent years, opponents of the way we have elected presidents have turned to a new strategy to undermine it—painting our electoral system with the indelible stain of racism. Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently wrote on Twitter that it was beyond time to abolish the Electoral College, calling it “a shadow of slavery’s power on America today. …” The Editorial Board of the New York Times called it “a living symbol of America’s original sin.”
One can immediately see the political power that would come with tainting the institution with racism and slavery, but where is the evidence?
The popularity of this argument seems to have come after Yale University law professor Akhil Reed Amar contributed a piece to Time magazine calling slavery the “demon” that doomed a national popular election for president at the Constitutional Convention.
Among law professors, Amar is a prolific and popular author. But what evidence does he muster for this interpretation? Frankly, it is almost nothing.
Amar cites one sentence from one delegate that was said more than a month before the actual Electoral College was created. In that statement, the delegate references the difficulty of finding a way to elect a proper president without violating other important principles, like the separation of powers—the leading plan through much of the Constitutional Convention was to allow Congress to do the choosing. That delegate, James Madison, simply offered that one downside of electing the president with a single national popular vote would be that the south would be disadvantaged because the southern states had smaller populations than the northern states.
That is pretty thin evidence that a “demon” was behind the creation of the Electoral College, as Amar and others want us to believe. What is more, Madison was speaking in response to New Jersey’s William Paterson who had proposed a system of electors not terribly unlike what would eventually emerge. It’s just not credible that Paterson, an ardent opponent of slavery, was proposing a way to protect slavery!
Some making this argument also point to the three-fifth compromise that allowed slaves to count as three-fifths of a citizen. Are they really unaware of the fact that the math they refer to was not created for the Electoral College but for the House of Representatives long before the Electoral College was created? When, at the very end of the Convention, the delegates finally settled on the system we call the Electoral College, they simply appropriated the math that was already baked into the constitutional system—equal representation of the states in the Senate and the varying population sizes of the states being represented in the House. It’s curious that these pundits and academics don’t turn their fire toward undermining the foundations of the House of Representatives, instead.
These opponents of the Electoral College also paint a disingenuous picture of the debates at the Constitutional Convention. To say the Electoral College was created to defend slavery, and hence that was what kept our founders from choosing to have the president chosen by a popular national vote, is to assume that otherwise they would have placed the electoral fate of the executive branch in the hands of a simple national plurality. This argument is just a-historical. Indeed, only two delegates proposed such a direct popular election, and their proposals received almost no support at all.
Rather, without the Electoral College, it would be more likely that we would have ended up with Congress electing our presidents, and those presidents would have been limited to one term.
We can, and should, have honest debates about the future of our political institutions. However, those debates should be carried out with a solid and honest knowledge of history and with a prudent eye about what’s best for our common future. They should not be pursued with half-truths and spurious attacks dipping back into America’s tragic history of slavery and racism in order to color the debates on our future.
Gary L. Gregg II, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville and is director of the McConnell Center. He is editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We Have an Electoral College.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.