About the Author
Alexander Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy. An historian by training, he has specialized in the exploration of historical problems that have contemporary policy implications. His book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000), was named the best book in U.S. history by both the American Historical Association and the Historical Society; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. A significantly revised and updated edition of The Right to Vote was published in 2009. His 1986 book, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts, was awarded three scholarly prizes. Keyssar is coauthor of The Way of the Ship: America's Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600-2000 (2008), and of Inventing America, a text integrating the history of technology and science into the mainstream of American history. In addition, he has co-edited a book series on Comparative and International Working-Class History. In 2004/5, Keyssar chaired the Social Science Research Council's National Research Commission on Voting and Elections, and he writes frequently for the popular press about American politics and history. Keyssar's latest book, entitled Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, is published by Harvard University Press and is scheduled for release in July 2020.
Every four years, millions of Americans wonder why they choose their presidents through the Electoral College, an arcane institution that permits the loser of the popular vote to become president and narrows campaigns to swing states. Most Americans have long preferred a national popular vote, and Congress has attempted on many occasions to alter or scuttle the Electoral College. Several of these efforts—one as recently as 1970—came very close to winning approval. Yet this controversial system remains.
Alexander Keyssar explains its persistence. After tracing the Electoral College’s tangled origins at the Constitutional Convention, he explores the efforts from 1800 to 2020 to abolish or significantly reform it, showing why each has failed. Reasons include the complexity of the electoral system’s design, the tendency of political parties to elevate partisan advantage above democratic values, the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments, and, importantly, the South’s prolonged backing of the Electoral College, grounded in its desire to preserve white supremacy in the region. The commonly voiced explanation that small states have blocked reform for fear of losing influence proves to have been true only occasionally.
Keyssar examines why reform of the Electoral College has received so little attention from Congress for the last forty years, and considers alternatives to congressional action such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and state efforts to eliminate winner-take-all. In analyzing the reasons for past failures while showing how close the nation has come to abolishing the institution, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? offers encouragement to those hoping to produce change in the twenty-first century.
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Alessandra Seiter: "For more than two centuries, "the United States has elected "its most powerful public official through a complex process "that has been widely criticized "and sometimes condemned outright, "a process that does not conform to democratic principles "the nation has publicly championed, "a process that is ill understood by many Americans, "bewildering to nearly everyone abroad, "and never imitated by another country "or by any state of the United States." This process is the Electoral College and this confounding description of it comes from the latest book by Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy school. The book's focus and title come from a question that has for years kept Professor Keyssar up at night: Why do we still have the Electoral College?
On this episode of Behind the Book, we speak with Professor Keyssar about this question and what it means for U.S. democracy.
The Electoral College refers to the process that has been used to choose the U.S. president every four years since 1787. When American voters go to the polling place on election day, they aren't voting for a specific candidate. Instead, they're voting for a group of electors who have pledged to support their candidate of choice. Generally, these electors are picked by state parties. They tend to be individuals who are active in their party, such as elected officials and political activists. After the election, the electors in each state meet and cast their votes for the nominee they've pledged to support. These votes are counted in a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the nominee who wins a majority of all electoral votes becomes president. Each state is allocated electors based on the size of its congressional delegation, while the District of Columbia is given three electors. Thus, the total number of electors is 538 with 270 needed to win the election. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, the election is decided by contingent vote with the House of Representatives voting on the president and the Senate voting on the vice president.
There's already a ton of scholarship making the case either for or against maintaining this process, and Professor Keyssar didn't intend to join their ranks. Instead he wanted to zoom out even further to make the case that the persistence of the Electoral College is not self-evident and requires explanation. To ask, in light of its distorting effects on American democracy, why is it still around? But Professor Keyssar didn't expect that developing that explanation would require years of detective work.
Alex Keyssar: When I first started working on this project, I did not imagine it to be such a massive undertaking. I didn't realize when I started out how little was known and the degree to which even the basic evidentiary base was contested or unknown. It took me into more nuances of American political history, more changes over time. From pursuing the nuances, I began to see patterns that had not really been discerned before.
Seiter: After years of working backwards from secondary sources, scouring the archives of local newspapers, and digging into the personal papers of late politicians, Professor Keyssar has built his explanation historically. He takes his readers through the many efforts made to shape and reform the Electoral College from its origins as the compromise-ridden solution to one of the most vexing questions of the Constitutional Convention: how to pick a chief executive. He covers the outcry against the winner-take-all method of allocating state electors as well as more contemporary pushes to replace the whole system with the national popular vote.
By investigating the continual failures of these efforts, Professor Keyssar illuminates three overarching reasons why we still have the Electoral College today. The first is the system's sheer complexity.
Keyssar: It's a very, very Byzantine mechanism, and one of the things they discovered was that it became extremely difficult to reform any feature of that mechanism without touching the rest of it.
Seiter: This political butterfly effect was first felt with the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, which mandated that electors cast separate votes for president and vice president. It fixed one problem, preventing a tie between two nominees, but it encouraged the development of political parties, which the framers had wanted to avoid when they wrote the Constitution. In their view, political parties would alter the nature of electoral competition and be destructive to the Republic.
This brings us to the second reason why Professor Keyssar thinks we still have the Electoral College: political partisanship. As the two party system became more firmly cemented in U.S. politics, and with states controlling how electors would be elected, dominant parties within each state started to gauge how they could maximize their influence. One of the most significant strategies they developed was winner-take-all, where the candidate who wins a majority of the state's popular vote, also gains all of that state's electors. Today, 48 out of 50 States use winner-take-all to choose their electors. In addition to this maneuvering, Professor Keyssar points to developments that intensified the antipathy between opposing party members.
Keyssar: The election of 1824 and the decision of the House of Representatives to make John Quincy Adams president, even though he had not won a plurality of either the electoral or popular votes created severe political hostilities in the system and made people focus on the contingent plan.
Seiter: Perhaps recognizing how difficult it would be to reform facets of the Electoral College in isolation, especially after the partisan consequences of the Twelfth Amendment, in 1816 Senator Abner Lacock of Pennsylvania, first introduced in congress the idea of replacing the whole system with the national popular vote, but the idea was quickly shut down. Why? Because of the third and final reason why we still have the Electoral College today: the legacy of slavery.
Keyssar: Senator Barbour from Virginia weighed in and said, in effect, if you have a national popular vote, then we do not get any electoral votes or influence on behalf of our slaves. And thus, we will not stand for that. We will not only oppose it, but Barbour made clear that he would oppose even appointing a committee to consider it.
Seiter: This argument was powerful enough to keep the idea of a national popular vote off the table for another 125 years, especially during the Jim Crow era. In the wake of the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were added to the Constitution with the intent of strengthening democratic rights for freed people in the South. Congress enacted several laws meant to protect the franchise for black voters. But the end of Reconstruction, in 1877, and the reemergence of white supremacists state governments reversed whatever progress had been made, and by the 1880s, most Black Southerners had been disenfranchised. This created a situation in which the South was given representation in Congress and the Electoral College disproportionate to the number of citizens who could actually vote. The national popular vote would eliminate the structural advantage, so Southern states had an incentive to retain the Electoral College system.
A movement to reform the Electoral College emerged in the mid-twentieth century, when a more politically progressive Congress was reinvigorated by democratic values during and after World War II. During this period, the issue was largely nonpartisan. The idea of a national popular vote gained outspoken proponents, not only from expected organizations like labor unions and Americans for Democratic Action, but also from small states, from the American Bar Association, and even from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s upheld the principle of "One Person, One Vote," further strengthening support for a national popular vote. By the 1970s, public opinion polls showed that as much as 82% of the U.S. population supported a national popular vote. In 1969, a bipartisan super majority in the House of Representatives actually passed legislation that would have replaced the Electoral College with a national popular vote, but that legislation couldn't overcome a filibuster in the senate by southern senators.
The 2000 and 2016 elections in which the winners of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College have renewed interest in reforming or replacing the system. One proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, has been adopted by fifteen states. Members of the compact have pledged that their electoral votes would go to the winner of a national popular vote. The compact would go into effect if states representing a majority of electoral votes sign on, however, support for this measure comes almost exclusively from Democratic-leaning states. The same can be said for many other reform efforts.
So here we are, over two centuries since its invention and the Electoral College prevails, not because of popularity, but because, according to Professor Keyssar, of its complexity, of partisanship, and of the legacy of slavery. But he doesn't necessarily think that we have another 200 years of the Electoral College to look forward to.
Keyssar: So one thing to draw from this is that we have come pretty close to electoral reform on more than one occasion. I also think it's the case that the salience of democratic values has increased over time, and even though we're in a very disputed and contentious era about that right now -- I certainly can't deny it-- the long run trend has been towards respecting the will of majorities.
Seiter: The book is Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, written by Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy. It's published by Harvard University Press.
This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSLibrary, and visiting our website.