As our revived national conversation on race has made clear, the legacies of slavery and white supremacy run wide and deep in American society and political life. One such legacy — which is particularly noteworthy in a presidential election season — has been the survival and preservation of the Electoral College, an institution that has been under fire for more than 200 years. Our complicated method of electing presidents has been the target of recurrent reform attempts since the early 19th century, and the politics of race and region have figured prominently in their defeat.
It is, of course, no secret that slavery played a role in the original design of our presidential election system — although historians disagree about the centrality of that role. The notorious formula that gave states representation in Congress for three-fifths of their slaves was carried over into the allocation of electoral votes; the number of electoral votes granted to each state was (and remains) equivalent to that state’s representation in both branches of Congress. This constitutional design gave white Southerners disproportionate influence in the choice of presidents, an edge that could and did affect the outcome of elections.
Not surprisingly, the slave states strenuously opposed any changes to the system that would diminish their advantage. In 1816, when a resolution calling for a national popular vote was introduced in Congress for the first time, it was derailed by the protestations of Southern senators. The slaveholding states “would lose the privilege the Constitution now allows them, of votes upon three-fifths of their population other than freemen,” objected William Wyatt Bibb of Georgia on the floor of the Senate. “It would be deeply injurious to them.”
What is far less known, or recognized, is that long after the abolition of slavery, Southern political leaders continued to resist any attempts to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote. (They sometimes supported other reforms, like the proportional division of each state’s electoral votes, but those are different strands of a multifaceted tale.) The reasoning behind this opposition was straightforward, if disturbing. After Reconstruction, the white “Redeemer” governments that came to power in Southern states became the political beneficiaries of what amounted to a “five-fifths” clause: African-Americans counted fully toward representation (and thus electoral votes), but they were again disenfranchised — despite the formal protections outlined in the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which stated that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” White Southerners consequently derived an even greater benefit from the Electoral College than they had before the Civil War.