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The Electoral College: A Racist Past

Former Congressman calls for reforms to the dated Electoral College

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by Guest Post on
Jul 08, 2020

This editorial first appeared in Newsday.

After I was elected to Congress in 2000, one of the first events I attended was a Joint Session of Congress which formally counted electoral votes to certify a presidential campaign winner. George W. Bush had lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes to Democratic opponent Al Gore. But thanks to the Electoral College, Bush still won the presidency.

It was a bizarre moment. Gore presided as then-vice president, repeatedly gaveling down Black members of Congress who protested Bush’s victory. Gore had received 90% of the Black vote — and likely thousands of uncounted Black votes.

But now Gore, winner of the majority of votes, was forced to silence his own supporters who protested the inequity. Twenty years later, Americans and our elected officials are debating overdue steps to acknowledge racial injustice in our police systems, prisons, schools, and other institutions. But none of the reforms will work until we address the racial injustice that remains in the way we elect our presidents. To create a fair democracy that reflects all our voices, we need to reform the Electoral College. 

The Electoral College, according to popular myth and America’s sanitized history classes, was created to ensure greater equity among states; to protect against the tyranny of the majority; to prevent a presidential candidate from winning elections by campaigning conveniently in states with a surfeit of voters while ignoring smaller, less-populated ones. But that’s only a sliver of the story. It was created in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia because the slaveholding South worried that in a direct election, Northern votes would outnumber Southern votes. Why? Because enslaved Blacks couldn’t vote. Convention leaders created a complex system to equalize the two sides, based on the racist practice of counting enslaved people as three-fifths of a human. That way, whites in the South would have equal representation in the college to whites in the North — without sharing any of that political power with the large population of enslaved Blacks.

The college gave a jump to Southern states with large, non-voting Black populations. Between the first president, George Washington, and the 16th, Abraham Lincoln, 10 came from Southern slave states. Today, the electoral college continues to serve the select few privileged during its racist inception — and continues to devalue and dilute Black votes.Presidential candidates don’t campaign in states they know they’ll lose — this election, for example, mainly will be waged in seven battleground states. Meanwhile, states like California, New York, Alabama, and Mississippi won’t be in play. This means campaigns write off a large group of voters — many of whom are Black — because they can’t expect to win Electoral College votes in these states. 

This is an issue members of Congress have recognized for decades, and the reason why members repeatedly have proposed modifications to the Electoral College.

In 2012, as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I sought a pragmatic compromise, and I introduced legislation to award 29 bonus votes to the winner of the popular election. The number was designed to break a close election without undermining the influence of smaller states. I thought my colleagues would find this a tolerable compromise between abolishing the institution and continuing an anti-democratic process. But the bill died in the House Judiciary Committee. We must reevaluate the archaic and discriminatory way we elect our presidents. To create a government that pursues just and anti-racist policies, we need to rebuild a just and anti-racist democratic process.

Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Huntington, is director of Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

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