The Electoral College: A Living Legacy of Slavery

OregonPEN sent the letter below to the Oregon Senate leadership on July 4, to no avail. The bill discussed died because the Senate leaders have again demonstrated that they would rather Oregon remain irrelevant in the presidential election process — and see the election of the popular vote losers (by millions of votes) — than join an interstate compact that would fix the problem by preserving the electoral college but ensuring that the popular vote winner was also the electoral college vote winner.  Shameful.

This Independence Day is an auspicious day to reflect on our founding, and to consider what we did then, why it was done, and how it affects us now.

That is why the Oregon State Senate should debate and then pass HB 2927, putting Oregon among the states who have not just recognized that the current electoral college system has failed us but which have also figured out a way to adjust the electoral college so that every American can have an equal say in electing our sole nationally elected official.

That adjustment is the National Popular Vote (NPV) plan. That’s the deal where state legislatures pass laws agreeing that, once enough states are part of the deal to make it work, they will award their state’s electoral college votes for the presidency to the candidate who gets the most votes across all 50 states, putting an end to the bizarre result where the candidate preferred by millions more Americans can lose the race for our sole national office.

Opponents of NPV are quiet about the motives for the electoral college system.

We Americans don’t focus on history much, and sometimes that’s not such a bad thing. Think of countries where the long-standing warfare lasts for generations, as each one takes up the historical struggle against the other side. But there’s also times when a refusal to look at history robs us of understanding, making it harder to overcome even hurtful traditional ways of doing things. The electoral college system is very much one of those things.

The electoral college was not just, as popular lore has it, a Rube Goldberg contraption cobbled together due to the elite Founding Fathers’ mistrust of the unwashed masses. That story is a cover story for the reality, which is that the system was set up as another way to help protect slavery, which by 1787 had become a uniquely vicious and extraordinarily profitable way of life for a tiny oligarchy who ruled the slave states with iron hands.

The entire constitutional project in Philadelphia was warped by the insistence of the representatives from the slave states on embedding the peculiar institution into the bedrock of the country. Those slave state delegates worked to protect the slavery system against the very ideals of freedom that they rhetorically championed. That is why they could not agree to direct popular election of the president – they could easily foresee a time of national abolitionist sentiment.

So they devised a system that gives greatly disproportionate weight to the states with low voting population: the electoral college, with each state legislature specifically charged with deciding how their state’s electoral votes would be determined. (The slave states also insisted that each slave be counted as three-fifths of a person in deciding how many representatives the states got, which also determines how many electoral votes the states would get.

That warping of the constitution was so profound that, in more than 200 years, we have still not overcome the harm to the notion of “e pluribus unum,” one from many.

In America today, the outsized influence of the combined low population states makes them nearly the equal of states having millions more Americans. That creates a situation where, thanks to the electoral college, voters in just a handful of swing states decide who is president, while the rest of the country is left out of the choice.

And those low population states, with their outsized influence, are much whiter than America as a whole, while the most populous states reflect the diversity of America to a much greater degree.  Thus, the recent trend towards popular vote losers being chosen as electoral college winners is not just an oddity. It has profound consequences to our ability to address the problems of inequality and injustice that dog us. If we do not overcome this legacy of slavery that is regularly installing popular vote losers in the White House – twice since 2000 – we are at risk of greater and greater pressures and cracks in society that cannot be resolved through the normal workings of democracy.

As a former submarine officer, I felt sick when I learned about the collision of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald with a giant merchant ship and the loss of seven lives. I knew immediately what the sailors on the Fitzgerald had to do when the collision alarm sounded and the water came roaring in – save the ship by securing the watertight compartments, even though it would cost some of the sailors their lives, trapping them in watery tombs.

No member of the Fitzgerald’s crew counted for any more, or any less, than any other. The media reported the names and background of the seven lost in that collision – the typical mix of immigrant names and histories that you find throughout the military today. Who would dare tell the families of those lost – or those that survived – or those that serve in other branches of the service throughout the world, day in and day out — that they are not and should not be equal to their shipmates, and that some of them should have more voting power than others because of the state they hail from and hope to return to?

Because of its history, the electoral college cannot be said to be un-American. Indeed, it’s as American as slavery, which is what led to its invention. And, like slavery, its negative consequences persist and hurt us as a nation today.

But, unlike with slavery, we can neutralize the problem without a bloody civil war. We can pass HB 2927 in Oregon, and work to bring more and more states into the compact until, once we have states with at least 270 votes on board, we have finally overcome this legacy of slavery. It’s long past time that we did so.