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The Electoral College and Slavery are connected


Sean Illing has written an eye-opening and well-researched article at VOX: “The real reason we have an Electoral College: to protect slave states - In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time.” Illing went to one of the top scholars on this subject, Professor Akhil Reed Amar, the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. The debates by the founders of our constitutional democracy concerning the Electoral College were involved and complex, but at the end of the day Professor Amar says that in his opinion “slavery” was the deciding factor is supporting this system of electing a national President:

So what’s the real answer? In my view, it’s slavery. In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge percentage of its population was slaves, and slaves couldn’t vote. But an Electoral College allows states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that’s what gave the South the inside track in presidential elections. And thus it’s no surprise that eight of the first nine presidents come from Virginia (the most populous state at the time).

This pro-slavery compromise was not clear to everyone when the Constitution was adopted, but it was clearly evident to everyone when the Electoral College was amended after the Jefferson-Adams contest of 1796 and 1800. These elections were decided, in large part, by the extra electoral votes created by slavery. Without the 13 extra electoral votes created by Southern slavery, John Adams would’ve won even in 1800, and every federalist knows that after the election.

Professor Amar told Illing that there were other explanations for the creation of the Electoral College that were taught to American children in school, but they really didn’t make sense. Here are some of those:

  • The Electoral College balances the divisions between big and small states. He then explains that “But the real divisions in America have never been big and small states; they’re between North and South, and between coasts and the center.
  • The House and Senate are a balance between big and small states. But Professor Amar points out that Presidents almost always come from big states. Only three Presidents came from small states: Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, and Bill Clinton.
  • The founders didn’t believe in democracy. Professor Amar points out however that the Constitution itself was put up to a vote, The House of Representatives is directly elected as are Governors in the states, and so he says this theory doesn’t hold up.
  • Voters can’t know about candidates for distant states. But Professor Amar says that once political parties arose, the voters knew the candidates through local politicians who support each candidate as well as the party platforms.

The controversy now swirls, with Clinton winning the popular vote and losing the election because of the Electoral College vote. The New York Times has recently published an analysis:The Electoral College is Hated By Many. So Why Does It Endure? This article also pointed to the racial origins of the Electoral College:

Above all, some historians point to the critical role that slavery played in the formation of the system. Southern delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, most prominently James Madison of Virginia, were concerned that their constituents would be outnumbered by Northerners. The Three-Fifths Compromise, however, allowed states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person — enough, at the time, to ensure a Southern majority in presidential races.

“Electoral college will forever tip balance to rural/conservative/“white”/older voters — a concession to slave-holders originally,” the author Joyce Carol Oates wrote on Twitter.

Whatever any of us think about the Electoral College can anyone seriously think it could be changed in a country where politicians refuse to agree on anything and gridlock is the only result assured? Or in a country where many of the citizens whose lives will be most affected by an election don’t vote?

What we do know is that the new President’s party controls both houses of Congress and a majority of the state Governors’ offices. The Supreme court during his first term will be populated with a new Justice and maybe two who will vote extreme activist positions that are assured to destroy many civil rights accomplishments of the last century. That same Supreme Court will be sympathetic with extreme measures passed in the states to limit the vote. In light of the shifts in the control of the political system by those white, Christian red-state voters, the Electoral College debate isn’t going anywhere soon. It is interesting history. That’s all.

What this election leaves me with is that the ballot box is where the country can be changed regardless of direction. And when citizens want to change things they can do so by voting. There isn’t any Big Brother or Big Sister or political party to do things for us. As citizens we can make things happen by voting. If a citizen doesn’t like the outcome then that citizen to work to get voters to cast ballots in the next election. The Red States did that in this election. They won. They control the country now. That’s how it works.

One final thought. If this is a resurgence of violent feelings by whites against minorities then it is important to remember that the reason Hitler and the fascists were able to unleash the Holocaust on the citizens of Europe in the 1930s was not because of how strong the fascists were but because of the weakness of the democratic systems that should have opposed them at the initial stages. In our country I see similar weakness in the progressive organizations.

As a trial lawyer I am turning my attention away from old fashioned support for political candidates by campaign contributions tied to lobbying and looking for ways to mobilize voters to educate themselves and vote. As a trial lawyer I have unique access to people. Organizing that base of voters could make a difference at the ballot box if other trial lawyers would do the same. I’d like to hear from other trial lawyers and regular citizens about this subject. For trial lawyers reading this I hope you take a look at the only lawyer organization attempting to do this: The Injury Board.


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  1. Richard Ward says:
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    Very interesting article and it explained a lot. I was not aware of the 3/5 compromise and its relevance to today’s elections. Thank you.

  2. Kevin says:
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    Barack Obama never would have been voted in without voters. People just don’t like Hillary period. The popular votewas so close about a percent different. Bottom line is our representation of bill Clinton George bush and Barack Obama have done nothing but implement global initiatives that have seen their voting base sink lower and lower schools close assistance checks decrease infrastructure decline especially in inner cities. Essentially and truthfully people in the inner city have been neglected period . It’s the truth. No excuses if the representation goes out to build a voter base and then neglects them once elected what good is it regardless of race

  3. Kevin says:
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    Correction first sentence should have read Barack Obama would never have been voted in without white voters in the south west north and east.

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    Thank you Kevin. I agree with your explanation. Looking forward, who will better organize voters around their ideas and then who will vote in the elections.

  5. Jon says:
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    What a bunch of revisionist history to further your political motives. Even with the electoral college the north had twice the numbers of electors than the south.

    Do your research before you believe some article out of time magazine.