fbpx The history of the Electoral College and our national conversation about race | Harvard Kennedy School

Alex Keyssar headshotAs the United States moves toward the 2020 presidential election, the country’s democratic institutions are becoming prominent once again in the national conversation. How we vote, and how fair and secure our electoral system is, can affect outcomes. At a time when racism is also very much on Americans’ minds, we might well ask how we eliminate racial bias in elections.

Historian Alexander Keyssar discusses issues related to race and our electoral system, among many other topics, in his substantial new treatise “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?,” published at the end of July. We asked him a few questions about the history of the Electoral College in America and the ways in which it is tied up with questions about race and bias.

Alexander Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.


Q: In your new comprehensive history, you write—among many other things—about race as a factor in conversations about electoral reform over the course of American history. What are some of the broad themes to keep in mind on this topic?

Both during slavery and also after slavery, well into the 20th century in fact, the states of the South stood firmly in opposition to the adoption of a national popular vote. The South was the bulwark of opposition during the period of slavery, of course, because slave-holding states received extra electoral votes thanks to the three-fifths clause. White Southerners, thus, gained added influence in the Electoral College, and if they had switched to a national popular vote, they would have lost that influence. That piece of the history is well known. But  we have lost sight of the fact that after the Civil War—and particularly after 1880–1890, when African Americans were driven out of politics in the South through force, and then more or less by law—Southern states were left in possession of what you might call “the five-fifths clause.” That is, African Americans counted 100 percent towards representation in Congress and towards electoral votes, but they still could not vote. That gave white Southerners substantially more influence in presidential elections than they would have had under a national popular vote. There were dramatically fewer votes cast in Southern states than in Northern states during the period, but it didn't affect electoral vote totals, so Southern states became staunch opponents of even considering a national popular vote.

We see this dramatically in 1970, which is when the United States comes closest to replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote. A constitutional amendment to do so passed the House in 1969, and then it went to the Senate where ultimately it was blocked by a filibuster led by Southern senators. The belief was that the Electoral College helped the white South defend itself against Northern pressures to enlarge civil rights and voting rights.

Q: What is the role of partisanship in debates about the Electoral College?

The role of partisanship has varied a lot over time. On some occasions, party interests (or perceived party interests) figured prominently in the reform debates; on other occasions, less so, or not at all. In the 1969-70 episode, for example, a national popular vote had broad bipartisan support. We need to remember that it was the Republican Party that was widely regarded as more sympathetic to the rights of African Americans from the late 19th century into the mid-20th. The Democratic Party was split between its Northern wing, which became increasingly liberal or progressive during the 1930s and beyond, and its Southern wing, which was increasingly conservative, particularly on matters of race. The party breakdowns are not what we, with our 21st century perspective, would expect. In recent decades, since 1980 really, most Electoral College reforms have been supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. But there are exceptions even during this period: Republicans in California mounted a strong effort to get rid of winner-take-all and allocate electoral votes by congressional district.

There is one other notable partisan story that relates to race. Many Republicans in the 1870s, during Reconstruction and just after, favored getting rid of the winner-take-all practice, which is not in the Constitution. They favored shifting to a system where electoral votes would be allocated by district or proportionally. There was a lot of support for that in the Republican Party, particularly among people who had been abolitionists. Yet by the 1890s, a mere 15 years later, the Republican Party started taking a completely different stance and opposed any district or proportional scheme for elections.

This was a puzzle that I needed to figure out. The explanation was that between 1875 and 1890, white supremacist regimes returned to power in the South, drove out the Republican Party, disenfranchised African Americans and converted the South, in effect, into a one-party region in which the Democratic Party controlled everything. Faced with that reality, a lot of Republicans, particularly in the Midwestern states, decided they didn't want to go with a district or proportional system. There were a lot of states in the industrial Midwest, and even in more agricultural areas, that were pretty solidly 55/45 Republican versus Democrat. That meant that if they did a proportional distribution of electoral votes, the Republicans would lose 45 percent of the electoral votes in these Northern states. But they would not gain that percentage in the South because the Republican Party had effectively been banished. So, in an indirect way the presence of these white conservative supremacist regimes in the South contributed to the formation of a different obstacle to Electoral College reform. The Republican stance endured into the mid-20th century.

Q: You write about President Jimmy Carter’s suggested reforms and that the African American community was divided on the advantages and disadvantages of potentially replacing the Electoral College with direct elections. Can you talk through the reasons?

Support for Electoral College reform in the years after 1970 remained very strong, and the reform effort was invigorated by the 1976 election. Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election by a narrow margin in the Electoral College (although he clearly won the popular vote), and that kicked up fears again of getting a “wrong” winner. The same liberal forces, more or less, that had promoted a national popular vote in the late 1960s, led by Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, came forward again promoting more or less the same amendment and the same reform. This time around, however, African American politicians and leaders of organizations were divided. One school of thought was led most prominently by John Conyers, who was one of the co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and a relatively young member of Congress at that point. Conyers and Louis Stokes, and other leaders—John Lewis, notably—absolutely believed that the country should switch to a national popular vote. The principle was that every vote should count equally. There was, however, another perspective held by leaders of some organizations—Vernon Jordan most prominently among them—who believed that African Americans were key swing voters in key Northern states—and thus that they could determine the outcome of a presidential election. As a result, they believed that African American voters would have to be courted under the Electoral College. For example, to try to get all of Ohio's electoral votes, you had to bring out the 12 to 15 percent of the population that was African American. So the view was that because African Americans were key swing voters who could determine the outcome of an election, they had leverage that they would surrender if there was a national popular vote.

In retrospect, the view that African Americans were swing voters who could tip an election was overly grounded in what had happened in 1976, when that was almost certainly true. But it has not been an enduring pattern. Eventually, the Black leaders and organizations that had supported the Electoral College changed their view and endorsed the national popular vote.


Q: What are the lessons we should take away from this when thinking about race and the Electoral College?

One thing we should take away from history is how pervasive the role of race has been in American history and American politics. Even an area which you might think would be quite remote, like Electoral College reform, is affected by matters of racial and regional politics. That's one takeaway that I think is important. We have to keep understanding the ramifications of racial discrimination as we've been doing in this revived national conversation.

A second point is somewhat more specific to the Electoral College. We should recognize that, through the way the Electoral College is structured, a state wields influence in an election in proportion to its population, not in proportion to its voters or the number of people who turn out to vote. What this means is that in a state where there is, for example, a dominant or semi-dominant party which can reliably count on winning 55 or 58 percent of the vote, that party is not going to be interested in getting rid of winner-take-all or adopting a national popular vote, or any other reform, because they benefit in a partisan fashion from winner-take-all. This also means, disturbingly, that the structure can create incentives for voter suppression. If, say, Texas or Mississippi—or Georgia to take a more recent example—suppresses a percentage of the African American vote, that state does not lose any influence because the vote total is lower. You still have the same number of electoral votes, and thanks to winner-take-all there is a lot at stake. The incentives for suppression are enhanced by the structure of the Electoral College.


Q: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about this topic that is important for us to know?

In the process of writing the book, one of the conclusions I reached was that the conventional wisdom that the small states had blocked electoral reform forever and ever was simply not true. A closer approximation to the truth—although it doesn’t by any means capture the whole story—is that, for much of our history, Southern states interested in maintaining segregation and white dominance have blocked reform.

Read an excerpt from “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?”

Banner image: Activists hold pro-voting rights placards outside of the US Supreme Court on February 27, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mandal Ngan

Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

A woman casts her ballot at a Washington, D.C., high school in 1964. Photo by Marion Trikosko
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