Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
America’s electoral college, an institution rooted in racial slavery, must be abolished.
Despite the electoral college’s central role in the symbolic progress of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office and Senator Kamala Harris’ election as the first female (and Black/South Asian) vice president in American history, this institution remains a largely anti-democratic tool.
Nowhere is this more evident than in President Donald Trump’s desperate efforts, aided and abetted by scores of Republican lawmakers, to overturn his overwhelming loss in the popular vote by nullifying votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia, many of which were cast by Black Americans. These staggering actions speak to the dangers of presidential elections conducted in a system of indirect democracy.
Race has been and is still at the heart of the history of the electoral college and battles over transforming it. The Constitution’s three-fifths clause proved to be the constitutional sweetener facilitating ratification of a document that southern slaveholding colonies were initially skeptical of. Counting enslaved Blacks as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of computing the population to determine the makeup of the House of Representatives gave slaveholding states disproportionate political power.
Counting enslaved Blacks, who primarily resided in the South, gave this slaveholding region more political power over the electoral college than its actual proportion of free citizens would otherwise have had. It’s a devil’s bargain the nation has wrestled with – and one that Black people have cruelly suffered from – ever since.
Rooted in White Southerners’ fears that they would be politically dominated by Northern interests after the Civil War, the electoral college’s anti-democratic nature continued, as Black people were denied citizenship and voting rights through ritualized racial terror, intimidation and unconstitutionally racist policies that nonetheless allowed the south to win the political peace after defeat on the battleground.
President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious Great Society legislation of the 1960’s, especially its immigration reform and civil and voting rights policies, helped to fundamentally transform the racial and ethnic composition of American society – and it served to politically realign the two major parties. The historic Republican Party of antislavery represented by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass became the improbable refuge for angry and disaffected Whites, especially in the South, while racial progressives and liberals decamped to the Democratic Party in a switch of loyalties that would have seemed impossible a century before.
In 1968, in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s razor-thin victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, a majority of Americans favored banning the electoral college. They were inspired by the very real possibility (which didn’t materialize) that neither Nixon, Humphrey or Wallace might gain a clear electoral victory, increasing the chances that Congress might decide the election and that the segregationist Wallace might become a kingmaker.
The next year, the House of Representatives voted for an amendment to end this unfair system once and for all. The Senate measure sponsored by Indiana’s Birch Bayh died a slow death, filibustered by Strom Thurmond and Dixiecrats who realized that a popular vote advantage for Nixon would disappear once Blacks could vote on an equal basis with Whites.
Between 1968 and 1988, this new Republican coalition won 5 of 6 elections, ushering in a conservative American political revolution that pushed back against racial justice, big government and the social justice policies that had served as the bench mark of postwar America from the New Deal until the 1960’s.
But then something happened. Demographic changes spurred in part by immigration and the coming of age of generations of Black voters enfranchised by the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped to create a new political coalition, one dominated by Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and White Americans who largely flocked to the Democratic Party.
This coalition of Americans has, since the 2000 presidential election, handed popular vote margins to Democrats in seven of the last eight elections. But in two of these instances, 2000 and 2016, the electoral college upended popular will and ushered the loser of the popular vote into the White House.
Meanwhile, the divergent responses of the two major parties to America’s increasing racial diversity have further polarized our nation’s politics. For all of the talk and analysis of the Democratic Party becoming dominated by Blacks and other people of color, there has been comparatively far less analysis of the fact the Republican Party (like the antebellum era Democrats) has become the party of Whites.
The racial dog whistles of the Nixon era – “law and order” and the like – have become naked bullhorns in the Age of Trump. The idea that Democrats are the party of affirmative action, illegal immigration and defunding the police ignores the evolution of the party of Lincoln with respect to Black voters. The GOP has gone from being the headquarters of major party’s political efforts to establish racial justice to becoming the opposite.
In the age of Black Lives Matter and Covid-19, the electoral college continues to undermine our democracy. It does this through polarizing red states versus blue states in ways that amplify our political differences while glossing over the potential common ground of pursuing citizenship and dignity for all Americans.
The electoral college exacerbates racial privilege by allowing predominantly White and largely homogenous states an outsized say over the democratic future of a country that is increasingly multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic.
Imagine a presidential election, the first in history, where every vote truly counted as an expression of popular will. Presidential candidates could and would no longer fly over red and blue states. They would be forced to fully engage with rural, suburban and urban voters in ways that could potentially diminish polarization. Finding common ground would be a matter of political survival. Abolishing the electoral college would also ensure that President Trump’s unethical efforts to circumvent popular will would be the last of their kind.
As it stands now, the electoral college is an archaic expression of the original founders’ limited vision of the nation. They could scarcely have imagined an America with a Black president and vice president, one who is a Black woman at that. A nation where the descendants of the formerly enslaved held positions of power and were perhaps the most important voting bloc in the land.
We have arrived at a new chapter in our history, one where our very growth and maturation as a nation requires us to move beyond the electoral college and embrace direct democracy once and for all.