Segment from Pulling the Curtain

Electoral Knowledge

Historian Alexander Keyssar explains how the Electoral College has magnified the white Southern vote.

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BRIAN: We’re gonna turn now to a piece of the election’s puzzle that everybody knows about, but most people don’t really understand– the electoral college.

PETER: Well, Brian, here’s the intro 101 version– when you go out to vote on November 6, you don’t technically vote for either of the presidential candidates. Keep that in mind now. You vote for a slate of electors who are pledged to support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It’s those electors who actually vote for the candidates. The number of electors your state gets?Well, simple. You just add up the number of congressional representatives and the number of senators.

BRIAN: All of which means that a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election. We all remember that happening in 2000, but it’s happened several times before that, too. So why do it this way? Why not just elect the president directly, with the candidate who wins the popular vote automatically winning the election?

PETER: You might have learned in civics class that the electoral college was set up to protect the interests of small states. Now, since the number of senators is the same for every state– you got that?– no matter how small it is, and since that number is factored into the number of electors for each state, small states end up being over-represented in the electoral college.

But the other part of the formula for determining the number of electors– that part about representatives– was also advantageous to a separate group of states– the Southern states.

BRIAN: Alexander Keyssar is an historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He told me that when all of this was being hashed out at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and a few delegates floated the idea of a direct election, it was the delegates from the slave states that shot it down.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: If there had been popular election of the president, then Southern states would not have gotten any bonus in political power for their slaves.

BRIAN: Yeah, and Alex, explain that to me, that bonus for their slaves. The slaves didn’t vote, of course. So what would the bonus taken away have been with a direct vote?

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: I mean, earlier in the summer, one of the big issues that they settled had to do with slavery. It had to do with small states and big states. And the way in which they dealt with slavery was with what became known, rather notoriously, as the Three-Fifths Compromise, that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for congressional representation. For determining how many members of Congress Virginia or North Carolina would get, it would be the white population plus 3/5 of the black population.

This obviously gave greater political weight to slave states than they would have had had slaves simply not been counted at all. It was a compromise between saying they shouldn’t count and they should count entirely.

BRIAN: So that if it had been a direct election, obviously none of those slaves would have voted.They would have lost that 3/5 edge per slave.


BRIAN: That’s huge.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Which would have been a very significant redistribution of electoral power among the states. My own view is that that was a very major underlying reason why popular election was not adopted and wasn’t even really seriously considered. It’s mentioned by a couple of people, including Madison. I tend to read it as one of those things that was there, and they knew it wouldn’t work.

BRIAN: But what about after the slaves were freed? I understand there’s a really ironic twist to the Southern advantage here. Could you talk about that a little bit?

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Sure. There’s a deeply ironic twist. The 15th amendment is passed after the Civil War, and African Americans are technically enfranchised. And for a period of 10 to 20 years, depending on the state, they do participate in elections. And they do vote. And then,they are deprived of their voting rights by the end of the 19th century.

The ironic consequence of that is that they are counted for full representation in the selection not only of members of Congress but of electoral votes. And yet they still don’t vote. So the consequence of the Civil War and Reconstruction is what I’ve come to refer to in several things I’ve written as the Five-Fifths Clause.

BRIAN: That’s a good way to put it.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: Southern states get full electoral power in national elections for their black populations. But their black populations don’t vote. I actually went and played with a few numbers on this. And you see things– for example, in 1910, there were more votes cast in New York and Pennsylvania, those two states alone, than there were votes cast in the entire South by a very large margin. And yet the South had twice as many electoral votes.

BRIAN: Yeah. No, it’s truly remarkable. And I was just looking at some data for another reason.But I saw that as late as 1964, only 7% of the eligible African Americans were registered in the state of Mississippi, which just underscores your point about that entire population being represented in the congressional delegation and the number of electoral votes in Mississippi, but only 7% of the blacks actually even being eligible to vote. It’s really remarkable.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: And it is a central fact of American political history for the first 2/3 of the 20th century that we don’t pay that much attention to.


BRIAN: That was Alexander Keyssar, an historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School.


ED: Now, there’s an interesting postscript to this history. In 1969, after a couple of close calls where it looked like the electoral vote and the popular vote might not line up, lawmakers drafted a constitutional amendment to– get this– abolish the electoral college. And it was wildly popular.It passed the House 338 to 70. The American Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO, they all supported it. President Nixon promised to sign it. State legislatures embraced the idea, and it seemed likely that enough of them would ratify it for it to become the law of the land.

BRIAN: But the proposed amendment hit a roadblock in the Senate. Senators who wanted to hang on to the electoral college said a direct election would undermine states’ rights, that it would lead to voter fraud. So they filibustered. They read the names of every French prime minister since 1800– all 153 of them, and they have long names– to make the point that direct elections cause political instability.

ED: And for some of the same reasons that Alex Keyssar just talked about, it was Southerners who waged the opposition, especially hardcore segregationists like Strom Thurmond, who led the charge. They had held on to that 5/5 advantage that Keyssar told us about through most of the 20th century, and they knew that a direct election would erase it.

BRIAN: Yeah, Ed, that’s right. I mean, you just can’t ignore that continuity. It’s what explains the failure of the best chance of reforming the electoral college. The funny thing is those same Southern senators knew that the land was changing beneath their feet. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant that African Americans were signing up at record numbers. And white Southerners knew that one day, African Americans in the South would be voting at the same rates as whites.But they did not know when that day was going to come. And until it came, they were going to hold on to some part of the advantage that the electoral college had always given to the white South.