Alex Keyssar imageNovember 2022. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Alex Keyssar, the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, on the November 2022 U.S. mid-term elections, the Electoral College, and voting rights. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

Links: Faculty page | Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Harvard University Press, 2020) | The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 2000) | Twitter



GrowthPolicy: We’ve just had the mid-term elections in the United States. What, if any, were your anxieties about these elections?

Alex Keyssar: Before the elections, my anxieties centered on the possibility that the results (or even the electoral process itself) would give a boost to election denialism, and to those forces in American politics that no longer respect the institutions of democracy and the outcomes of elections (unless, of course, they win).  I worried that the elections in some states would be accompanied, or followed, by violence; that the results of the elections might provoke widespread claims of fraud or actions modeled on what happened on January 6, 2021.  I worried, too, that numerous election deniers might be elected to key state offices and thus pose a threat to the integrity of future elections.

I am, accordingly, relieved that, for the most part, this has not happened.  Voters appear to have rejected the candidacies of most of the strident election deniers.  And importantly, things have been pretty quiet in the aftermath of the election; the Republican candidates who were defeated seem to have accepted defeat, and their supporters are not crying foul, mobilizing in the streets, or heading to the courts.  This may mean that some of the steam has gone out of the denialism that was been promoted by the former President and has dominated the Republican Party for the last two years.


GrowthPolicy: I’d like you to speak about structural racism as it pertains to the erosion of voting rights. Racism and White supremacy are not new to the fabric of the United States. What, in your opinion, is unique to this present moment in terms of disenfranchising citizens who are people of color from voting? What advice do you have for election officials and policy makers?

Alex Keyssar: Racism has always been an issue with respect to voting rights in the U.S; resistance to non-white electoral participation is a dismal theme in our political history.  The form that it takes currently, and in recent decades, is the erection of procedural obstacles to voting that will have a greater impact on poor and less-advantaged citizens than on others—and that means having a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.  There are, of course, partisan factors at play here as well: most African-Americans (as well as a smaller majority of Hispanics) support Democrats, and limiting their participation at the polls, thus, advantages Republican candidates.  That said, the extent of successful voter suppression was (foreseeably) not great in this election, in part because many organizations have been working hard to mobilize voters who might encounter difficulties. 

A somewhat different expression of the impulse to suppress the minority vote showed up strongly in the 2020 election:  attempts to go to the courts (or use other methods) to challenge votes cast in major cities that had large minority populations.  A predominant pattern in 2020 involved White suburban or rural Republicans claiming that there were large-scale irregularities or fraud in cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Madison, and Atlanta.  Although the courts tossed nearly all of these claims in 2020, efforts of this type, if successful, could effectively disenfranchise large numbers of urban voters.  To be sure, the United States has a long history of suspicion of electoral fraud in large cities (once aimed at immigrant organizations or “machines” in the early 20th century), but the 2020 election saw such claims presented with a new level of intensity and an unmistakable racial animus. 


GrowthPolicy: In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, we saw the phenomenon of activists, poll watchers, and, in general, conspiracy-driven groups challenging election results based on false theories of election fraud. The New York Times recently reported that this is continuing to occur as we head towards the U.S. mid-term elections. What is your prediction of where the U.S., as a democracy, is headed in this post-truth electoral environment of mistrust and suspicion?

Alex Keyssar: Despite the surprising outcome of this election, I think we are headed towards a prolonged period of mistrust and suspicion that can corrode the tolerance and forbearance that democratic societies require.  As I wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times on the anniversary of January 6, I think that public opinion regarding the 2020 election will remain bifurcated for a long time to come.  Since truth apparently does not matter to a relatively large number of people, there is nothing to block or reduce the perpetuation of false theories and claims. 


GrowthPolicy: Your book, Why do we still have the electoral college? is a magisterial study of the concept. As you point out in the book, the Electoral College in the United States originates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and has, at its core, been designed as a tapestry of political accommodation and compromise. What are your fears about the future of free and fair elections in the United States given the current state of the Electoral College?

Alex Keyssar: I worry about two things with respect to the Electoral College (in addition to being critical of many of its features).  The first is that the current geography of partisanship is such that we may continue to see significant gaps between the popular vote and the electoral vote, as happened in the last two elections.  Whenever such gaps lead to a “wrong winner” election (in which the winner of the popular vote loses the electoral vote), the legitimacy of the outcome can be called into question:  the winner according to constitutional rules is not the winner according to democratic norms (i.e., the person who received the most votes).  That will surely heighten partisan tensions and could yield instability.  The Electoral College coupled with the Senate (and aided by partisan gerrymandering) can yield durable minority rule—which is not what democracies are supposed to achieve.

My second concern about the Electoral College is that it will continue to deform presidential election campaigns and thus hinder the formation of truly national understandings of key issues.  Thanks to the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes (which is not mandated by the Constitution), Presidential campaigns are now effectively confined to a dozen (or fewer) swing states, and the messages put forward by both parties focus on the (presumed) interests of voters in those states.  The views of citizens who live in California, or Texas, or Massachusetts are not factored into the political equation, while the temperature of political combat in the swing states is elevated because all electoral votes are at stake.   Not a healthy way to decide important national elections or to engage the public in discuss of key issues.


GrowthPolicy: This past summer, the House Committee on the January 6 Capitol Insurrection established a compelling narrative of the systematic and concerted effort to overturn the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, through a series of eyewitness hearings. For historians studying these hearings say, a century from now, what would these hearings reveal about the future of the United States? 

Alex Keyssar: I think that the House January 6 Committee has done a superb job of producing that narrative, and the narrative brought coherence to events that we, at the time and in the months thereafter, learned about only piecemeal and haltingly. Historians, a century from now, will almost surely utilize the report of the committee (as well as its thousands of accompanying documents) as their primary source in evaluating what happened in January 2020. 

I suspect that those historians will be struck by the persistence, and dishonesty, of a sitting President’s effort to remain in office despite the results of the election, and by how close we came to a profound constitutional crisis or even the undermining of our constitutional order. They will also be struck by the degree of support that the Republican party gave to the illegal—or, at best, questionable—attempts by the President to overturn the results of an election.

If the next century (or even half-century) is politically calm and stable, then historians will likely regard the events of January 6 as a frightening anomaly and as evidence of the resilience of the nation’s institutions.  On the other hand, if, a century from now, historians find themselves trying to explain why and how democracy collapsed in the United States, they are likely to see the aftermath of the 2020 election as a turning point, or perhaps a prologue—an indicator of a widespread loss of faith in democracy and the inability of eighteenth-century institutions to contain the conflicts of the twenty-first century.