Two decades ago, I posed this question in this column:
Why is the vote of a Texan in the presidential election more important than one cast by a farmer in South Dakota?
For that matter, why will a surfer dude in California have more to say about the outcome of the presidential race than an African-American schoolteacher in Mississippi?
The answer is simple: the Electoral College.
But you may need a master's degree in political science to understand why our nation's forefathers ever created this mysterious "college."
There are no instructors.
There are no classes.
There is only someone there to tell you that winning in Texas is more significant than winning in South Dakota.
At the time that I wrote the column, people were predicting that in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, there was a possibility that a candidate could win the popular vote and still lose the election.
That prediction became reality four years ago, when Hillary Clinton received about 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but Trump received more electoral votes.
We’ve all received lessons about the Electoral College ever since then, especially from Trump supporters who have come to his defense, explaining through inaccurate posts on social media like Facebook of why the Electoral College is needed.
Maybe you’ve seen the posts. One includes a map of the United States, noting that the state of New York has a population of 19.8 million, Florida is home to 20.6 million, Texas has a population of 27.9 million and California is home to roughly 68 million of our nation’s total population (in 2016) of 321.4 million.
“Without the Electoral College, 4 states would have almost one-third the voting power in the United States,” the post reads. “Before you try and change the system, know the consequences of the changes. There is a reason we don’t elect the President by ‘popular vote.’ Do your homework.”
So, I did do it. My homework, that is.
In my high school government class, I learned that the Electoral College originally was created to boost small states' voices in the elections. It’s a pretty simple explanation, I know.
Probably because this lesson glosses over a very uncomfortable part of our nation’s history. Those “small states” were in the South. And the reason they were small was not because of their populations. Northern states and southern states had roughly the same number of people.
But the number of eligible voters in the South was quite different. Slaves living in those states could not participate in elections. They did not have the right to vote.
The Founding Fathers were challenged with how to keep the South happy -- the South, the place with a large population of slaves that the Founders couldn’t even imagine granting the right to vote.
As Wilfred Codrington III noted in an article published in The Atlantic approximately a year ago, “Commentators today tend to downplay the extent to which race and slavery contributed to the Framers’ creation of the Electoral College, in effect whitewashing history: Of the considerations that factored into the Framers’ calculus, race and slavery were perhaps the foremost.
He noted that the delegates to the Philadelphia convention had scant conception of the American presidency—the duties, powers, and limits of the office. But they did have a handful of ideas about the method for selecting the chief executive.
When the idea of a popular vote was raised, they griped openly that it could result in too much democracy. With few objections, they quickly dispensed with the notion that the people might choose their leader.
“But delegates from the slaveholding South had another rationale for opposing the direct election method, and they had no qualms about articulating it: Doing so would be to their disadvantage. Even James Madison, who professed a theoretical commitment to popular democracy, succumbed to the realities of the situation. The future president acknowledged that “the people at large was in his opinion the fittest” to select the chief executive. And yet, in the same breath, he captured the sentiment of the South in the most “diplomatic” terms:
“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much 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,” Madison wrote. “The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”
Behind Madison’s statement were the stark facts: The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned.
With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent.
“When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president,” Codrington writes, “it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation. The peculiar system that emerged was the Electoral College.”
I’m writing this as Election Day has turned to night and a few East Coast states’ presidential election results are being reported. There is constant talk concerning “battleground states” -- Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania -- whose voters will, as they have in the past, play a huge role in deciding our next president because they are richer in electoral votes than much of the country.
Playing by the rules of the Electoral College, a presidential candidate needs to collect 270 electoral votes.
Technically, a candidate could win as few as 11 states and be elected president. The road to victory would lead through California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and Georgia.
I noted 20 years ago that the Electoral College makes no sense to me as far as democracy is concerned. The popular vote – the way we determine the winners in every other type of political race, from city councilman and school board member to governor and members of Congress – should also be used to determine the winner of our presidential races.
Americans need to call for a constitutional amendment that eliminates the Electoral College.
It is time to put this antique out in the front yard and give it away to the first person who comes by.