I would be willing to bet good money that a plurality of electoral college defenders (less than a third of Americans) are not aware that the electoral college was widely disagreed upon by our supposed god-like founders—even though many electoral college defenders claim they created a perfect, seemingly unamendable constitution. So many rush to cite “The Founders”—which is kind of adorable in its child-like naivete—given that most subjects of America’s founding were fervently disputed by the Founding Fathers. They were anything but a monolith. There was not much broad consensus on the topics that govern our lives today. They fought constantly and bitterly, as anyone who has seen Hamilton can attest.
The man known as the “father of the constitution,” James Madison, has a reality check for folks who make the standard “the electoral college exists to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority” defense. We know that Madison said this thanks to his journal documenting the debate in the 1787 Philadelphia Convention—which is one of the few historical resources we have that confidently puts us inside the room where the constitution was drafted. Tyranny of the majority is not why the electoral college is in there (well, it is, but because of a different kind of tyranny of the majority).
”The people at large was in his opinion the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character.”
Translation from 1700s-speak: the majority of people should probably choose the president.
Madison’s central, extremely 1787 context-dependent reservation about a simple majority vote in the new world?
”There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was 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.”
You’ll never believe what Madison said the solution was to fusing a practical union between slave-owning and non-slave-owning states.
”The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”
Apologies folks, but I’ve got to scream this summary of all that 1700s-speak so the Esoteric Jeffs of the world can hopefully hear it:
THE “FATHER OF THE CONSTITUTION” SAID MAJORITY RULE IS BEST TO PICK PRESIDENTS AND THE REASON WE “SUBSTITUTED ELECTORS” WAS BECAUSE OF THE SLAVE-OWNING SOUTHERN STATES!
The reason I’m writing this column is because Elizabeth Warren—current frontrunner of the Democratic policy primary, if not the polling one—called for the abolition of the electoral college in her CNN town hall on Monday night. This has sparked a raft of completely ahistorical takes from electoral college defenders, led by the dummy at the top, who assert that minority rule is good actually, because majority rule is why Athens fell, or something (we all know why most GOPeople really defend it).
Seriously, look at Esoteric Jeff.
This is, more or less, why the 17th Amendment is the only Amendment of the Constitution that should be repealed. Senators should return to being appointed by state legislatures, not voted on by the people. More important in our demotic age than ever.— Esoteric Jeff (@EsotericCD) March 19, 2019
The actual, documented history of the electoral college has less to do with the relative power of states and far, far more to do with the relative power of slave-owning states.
How do I know this?
Because I’ve read Article 1 Section 2 Clause 3 of the United States constitution:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Take a wild guess at who the founders were talking about when they mentioned “three fifths of all other Persons.” This part of the constitution is what is commonly known as the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the reality behind it is what the “father of the constitution” was speaking of when he said the “substitution of electors obviated this difficulty.”
The electoral college exists because slave-owning states wanted representation in the constitution relative to their population, but they did not want their entire population to be represented in the constitution. Enslaved people comprised 40% of Virginia’s population. This was no small issue (further cementing James Madison’s status as the father of the constitution: he owned slaves in Virginia).
You cannot look at pre-Civil War America through any primary lens other than slavery. It was the defining issue of the day. I was taught this stuff as a freshman political science major in college. It’s not exactly a secret. The first thing Mississippi wrote in their declaration of secession was why they were leaving the union along with a bunch of other slave-owning states:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
The notion that slavery has nothing to do with flaws in the constitution is as absurd as the notion that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. These two events are directly linked. The South fought to preserve “the institution of slavery” while slave-owning politicians fought to enshrine it in the constitution in the decades before it. People fighting for “the greatest material interest in the world” created a system that gave you and me loser presidents in George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who then put (at least) four loser justices on the nine-person Supreme Court that will make most of the major decisions for most of the rest of our lives (fun fact: we have nine justices thanks to a law from 1869, the constitution gives Congress power to increase or decrease the size of Supreme Court whenever it wants, so long as the president signs the bill).
The constitution is flawed. Many founders said so. That’s why they gave us the power to amend it, some hoping that we could use amendments to eventually reverse course from our original sins of state-sanctioned slavery and genocide—backed by the full force of the United States constitution (per the United States constitution).
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.