Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College

The Constitutional Convention, 1787. Source: history.com.
The Constitutional Convention, 1787. Source: history.com.

At 11:45 p.m. on November 6, 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that “the electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” Four years later, at 2:31 a.m. on November 9, 2016, the Associated Press projected that Donald Trump would win the state of Wisconsin and therefore surpass the required 270 Electoral College votes to become President-elect. The AP tweeted: “Donald Trump is elected President of the United States.”

Though Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the national popular vote, Mr. Trump is now President-elect based on the indirect representational nature of the Electoral College. There is nothing particularly novel about this latest (un)democratic contradiction—it happened in 1876, 1888, and 2000—except that it opens up a critical space for examining the racialized genesis of the Electoral College itself.

In the aftermath of any presidential election, statisticians aim to index the demographic features of the electorate. We have learned, for instance, that Hillary Clinton won 88, 65, and 65 percent of the Black, Latino, and Asian-vote, respectively, and that Donald Trump captured 58 percent of the white vote. We also know that the white vote—especially unprecedented support from white women—put Trump over the top. While these isolated figures are certainly important for diagnosing electoral trends and prognosticating future turnout, they tend to prevent us from considering the historical roots of so-called colorblind instruments of U.S. democracy like the Electoral College.

Electoral College results, 2016. Source: Google.
Electoral College results, 2016. Source: Google.

To be clear, this critique of the racialized origins of the Electoral College should not be interpreted as the cheap product of disappointment over the most recent election results, but rather as an effort to tap into what will likely be a short-lived public appetite for presidential politics in order to explore how U.S. political institutions are themselves always already racialized. To be sure, race and racism in the U.S. context have long served as some of the most significant guarantors of democratic structures and institutions. In short, U.S. democracy itself is a racial project whose fulcrum hinges on policies of inclusion and exclusion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the provenance of the Electoral College, to paraphrase Ronald Takaki, is grounded in questions of racialized ‘insiderism’ and ‘outsiderism.’ To this end, the Electoral College is responsible for the fact that four of the first five U.S. presidents were white, slave-holding men from Virginia. The “Virginia” variable is key here, as Virginia held the largest population of enslaved black men, women, and children from the inception of the “peculiar institution” until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

In 1787, white men of status met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution. Questions of elections, taxation, and governance, among others, were debated vigorously. One of the most contentious themes considered over the course of the four-month convention was by what process to elect a president.

Two months into the meeting, Pennsylvania lawyer James Wilson proposed direct election of the president. Some delegates lamented that an “uneducated” populace would be incapable of the sort of self-governance required to ensure a salutary direct democracy. Such an elitist concern, however, was not what occupied the minds of most delegates, and especially those from the South. James Madison—a slaveholder from Virginia—worried that such a system would compromise the political influence of the slaveholding South, a region of the country that on a eligible voter population-basis would nearly always lose to the North in a direct election system. Madison opined: “There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. 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. The substitution of electors [through the Electoral College] obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

The Constitutional Convention, 1787. Source: Tenth Amendment Center.
The Constitutional Convention, 1787. Source: Tenth Amendment Center.

In a direct election system, the North would have outnumbered the South (which had a large population but far fewer eligible voters), whose roughly 550,000 enslaved black people were disenfranchised. Delegates from the South generally supported Madison’s idea of the Electoral College over a direct election system because it was based solely on population volume, not citizenship status or enfranchisement. In conjunction, and at Madison’s urging, the convention agreed to count each enslaved black person as three-fifths of a citizen for the purpose of calculating each state’s representation in the Electoral College and in the allotment of congressional seats.

Colonial Virginia won big under the Electoral College system: the state occupied 12 of the 46 electoral votes (26 percent) needed to win an election in the first round. (As a reference point, such disproportionate overrepresentation would be tantamount to present-day California enjoying 70 electoral votes.) Whereas the Electoral College artificially enhanced the political influence of the South, it deflated the political influence of the North. After the 1800 census, for instance, Pennsylvania had 10 percent more free persons than Virginia, but had 20 percent fewer electoral votes. According to legal historian Akhil Reed Amar“Perversely, the more slaves Virginia (or any other slave state) bought or bred, the more electoral votes it would receive. Were a slave state to free any blacks who then moved North, the state could actually lose electoral votes.” Simply stated, the Electoral College incentivized the institution of slavery; it was created to protect and propagate the enslavement of black people. The Electoral College operationalized the 3/5ths compromise and helped to secure, extend, and enhance the political power of the white slaveholding class whose epicenter at the end of the eighteenth century was Virginia.

The contentious aftermath of our most recent presidential election should challenge us to ask some inconvenient questions about the racialized nature of our political institutions and to rethink the propriety of the Electoral College, a retrograde political apparatus whose origins in slavery and anti-black racism challenge the radical proposition of “one person, one vote.”


Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.


Comments on “Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College

  • Chris
    Very interesting article. I had seen your earlier comments about the speech Madison gave and I appreciate you expanding on it. Along the lines of our system giving more leverage to those in power, it makes me wonder about the 47% that did not vote. I would be interested to know the voting tendencies of that block. I would wonder if that block would tend to vote Democrat party. My question being, would it even be close in these elections? Is that leveraged power much greater than we even realize?

    The results of this election didn’t surprise me that much. Having read a reasonable amount of Chomsky and materials from the left I consider myself pretty well tuned in with the agendas of the mass media. I have told friends for years the country is being taken to the left socially, gay rights/marriage, Confederate flag, etc. because it costs the elite nothing to allow that to progress in society. The Democrats are the leading “edge” of the social progress frame with Republicans 20 years behind.
    In the same way but in the opposite direction, the country (and world) are being taken to the right fiscally/economically towards more everything being more privatized with the Republicans being the leading “edge” of the frame and Democrats playing “straight man” (as in comedy) allowing it to happen.
    Those two views still do not address (purposely) the leveraged power of which your article is about because the masses are not to have a say. The illusion that they have some control and “a say” must be maintained though.

    Lastly I am thankful to have found you (through Left) on twitter. Living in the south it is hard to find any kind of dialogue that you are willing to engage in. When I first saw Kaepernick with his protest, I though he kind of stumbled over the reasoning. When I saw him retweet (Chomsky through) Left later it gave me some hope a meaningful protest is possible through athletes being exposed to Academics such as yourself.

  • Thank for tweeting this! I reminded some people just yesterday about the origin of the dastardly college. It must end, and the voting day should be extended.

    Cynthia Hawkins

    • I agree with you on this.

  • No, it should not end. Protests in the streets are the perfect example of 40% of the populace not being of sound mind and body. Protesting is one thing, destructive protests are another.
    I understand the interest in getting rid of it, but that should have happened during reconstruction, not in the 21st century.
    Read all the reasons to keep it, and then the reasons to have a constitutional convention to repeal it, and I’m sure you will see the benefits of the electoral college. And yes, even in the 21st century.

    • The protests in the streets are part of being a democracy. The rioting is the result of Anarchists getting involved. Anarchists also have freedom of speech in the country, but their criminal actions should not be blamed on peaceful protesters. The EC has to go. Instead, let’s go with a ranked order voting process that will protect us from the 40%. And, you do realize, we think you are just as crazy as you think we are, right?

      • Yes, ranked order voting! I’ve been saying this for awhile now! This would have prevented Trump from getting the nomination with only 25-30% support from his own party. I bet a lot of Cruz, Kasich, Rubio et al voters would have marked the others as their second, third, etc choice and ranked Trump at the bottom, balancing out his 25% support. I think multiple rounds of voting would work, too. Those who voted for a candidate that has dropped out would have the opportunity to recast their vote. All the reasonable Republicans had their vote split among all the other candidates.

  • I personally would rather not count than count as 3/5 of a person.

    • The south/slaveowners wanted them counted as a whole person (it was for population to determine number of electors). The north didn’t want them counted because they were not voting citizens, and they knew it would tip the balance of power in Congress and the EC to the southern states. I know it seems counterintuitive, but the 3/5 compromise was a good thing if the alternative was to count them as 1 & give the south even more influence. Slaves not being counted at all was what the north wanted but in the end they compromised on 3/5.

      • That being said, it was a compromise within an already bad situation and system that inched a power grab by the south.

    • I totally concur with you on this.

  • Wonderful article! I found a lecture that may add further discussion. Thank you!
    https://youtu.be/_Jf2NQoR88g

  • Violent demostrations? You know more people in Chicago were arrested with more property damage occurring when the Cubs won the World Series than in 4 nights of protest?

    You probably did not, but both spontaneous gatherings are protected are protected by the Bill of Rights.

  • If one is in favor of democracy one should be opposed to the electoral college, which was created as THE alternative to democratic election of the president, in order to best protect the slaveholding class. This essay very nicely lays out the essential role of the Slave Power in the origins of the electoral college, but that history is even clearer when one examines how Congress, following the constitutional crisis of 1800-01, amended the Constitution with the 11th Amendment. Twice recently, in 2000 and 2016, the electoral college allowed the runner-up in the popular vote to become president over the actual winner, and it happened a few other times (1876, 1888). Black Lives Matter and yet our constitutional system today still has a major relic of the slaveholders’ constitution: the electoral college, twice recently put George W. and Donald Trump in the White House.

  • The Democrats were pro-slavery and tried to block the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The fact that the Democrats had an agenda in creating the electoral college does not negate the fact that it remains the most fair system of electing a President. Take slavery out of the question and what have you got? A system that balances the power of the population by state. This prevents only those states with large populations from carrying the day.

    • You can’t go back 150 years and state things that simply. The democrats and republicans have completely switched what they stood for back then. The people who had the agenda with the EC were the slave owners and pro-slavery people (called democrats back then) but it is very clear that throughout history, the people who have always supported civil rights are the people the democratic party now comprises of. Your statement is the kind of thing Fox News tells people and unfortunately, 90% of Fox News viewers don’t seek out opposing opinions (or facts for that matter) to try and create their own, educated opinion.

  • This is a very strong historical analysis. I would however, caution everyone to think critical and calmly on taking a certain position before examining all possibilities. This article shows the thinking behind suppressing minorities vote. At this point minorities alone may find it hard to influence a presidential election with a direct vote as well. In truth the electoral college has given and does allow the opportunity for “minorities” to have a major impact on an election. For example in states that are highly populated by minority groups they can shift an election towards one candidate. The hard work that must be done is in persuasion and education. It is important to educate and persuade voters to vote as one block on the issues that matter most, their security. Most people vote their interest and we must be able to engage the populace with a message that unites and centers them towards the same level of economic and social wellbeing. We need a grassroots’ organizing, constant messaging, recruiting, organizing, and politicians that are held accountable to those interest groups platform. To focus attention on the electoral college may distract from the key concern of organizing, organizing, organizing, organizing, and organizing again and again. We have to do the work, there is no quick fix to securing freedom and equality. Most to all minority groups must ultimately have real unadulterated power. They must vote as a block, recognizing their similar interest, use their purchasing power, advocate, invest, etc. in one single united form. When there is concentrated, unified, organized power there can be equal representation. This can not happen in a fragmented minority. It is harder to represent subunits, of a marginalized suppress group. Not saying these voices can’t be heard, but when it comes to speaking there must be a unified voice of the minority populace that are concentrated on same issues and values. There is the need for a unified platform. Once more there is the need for organizing and participation.

  • A very interesting discussion on such an important topic. I would strongly concur with those who say that the electoral college has tainted the American ideal of democracy from the very beginning—it is at the core of our profound set of contradictions. A democratic republic that springs from the massive extraction of wealth through the brutalization and mass murder of black people, and genocidal wars against native cultures, faces almost insurmountable challenges.

    Had we made it to the present day having won universal suffrage for women and people of color along the way, all that struggle and hardship might allow us to ignore those tainted origins and accept that the electoral college system might be flawed but is useful in some measure to all. Sadly, that is not the case. With millions of black and brown people subjected every single day, to military-style incursions in their communities in the guise of a well-intentioned war on drug addiction—while drug epidemics in white communities are treated as a health crisis—we are left in very much the same condition. Many millions of black and brown people are politically disenfranchised for life, labeled as felons. And the world’s largest prison population, located primarily in rural white communities but comprised mostly of black and brown people, is counted as “population” but not allowed to vote. As in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the electoral college enforces overrepresentation of white communities using political and legal structures that keep our racial caste system very much alive and well.

  • For a more balanced vie I suggest reading The Framers’ Coup by Michael Klarman, which provides details of the arguments mad during and after the Constiutional Convention of 1787.

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