The Electoral College is inherently unfair and should be changed, if not completely eliminated, as soon as possible. With the 2016 election looming, and presidential candidates and the nation acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s more important than ever to fix our flawed system of electing a president. Throughout its history, the Electoral College has enabled and encouraged racial inequality, particularly for African-Americans.
One man, one vote
Before addressing race directly, we should note that the Electoral College is inherently problematic for all Americans. Arguably the clearest issue with the Electoral College is that it denies the basic principle of “one citizen, one vote.” The number of a state’s House and the Senate members determines how many electors that state is allocated during presidential elections (along with three electors for the District of Columbia). While the number of Representatives from each state is proportional to the state's population, the fact that each state has two senators—regardless of its population—means that smaller states are over-represented, and bigger states are under-represented, in the Electoral College.
In other words, voters have more power in places like Wyoming, Alaska, and the District of Columbia than they should. But a bigger state like Texas, which has 7.6 percent of the national population, only controls 6.3 percent of the electoral votes; California has 12.2 percent of the population, but only 10.2 percent of the electoral votes, according to legal scholar Sanford Levinson’s book, Our Undemocratic Constitution. In some cases, votes count about three times as much in the smallest states as they do in the biggest states.
Of course, the Electoral College was never meant to be democratic. In addition to alleviating some of the past’s practical issues of conducting a popular vote, the Electoral College was also designed as a political safeguard against the uneducated masses, leaving more power in the hands of the governing elites.
The Electoral College is structurally racist
But the Founders had another, more sinister reason for the Electoral College—to strengthen slave states. In the Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College system was designed as part of a compromise that would entrench slaveholding states' power in the presidential elections.
Since slaves themselves were unrepresented and disenfranchised, White politicians and voters in Southern states gained greater electoral power if enslaved persons were counted the same as free persons. But many Northerners opposed counting enslaved persons—after all, as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts wondered, why should “the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle & horses of the North?” In an attempt to appease both sides, the Three-Fifths Compromise—in which three—fifths of the slave population would count towards a state’s population—allowed slave states to gain more representatives—and therefore more electoral votes—without actually letting slaves have any voting rights whatsoever.
Today, we have put an end to slavery and legal segregation. But the structure of the Electoral College has not changed. Now a different kind of structural racial disadvantage perpetrates racial inequality. Josh A. Goodman argued in the Huffington Post that even if the electoral college “isn’t intentionally inherently racist, it still works that way: By privileging the voters of less populous, mostly White states, the electoral college takes away power from the large racial minority populations in big states and adds to the existing racial injustices surrounding voting.”
While it’s technically true that all people in smaller states are at an advantage because of the electoral college, it also happens that the over-represented smaller states are disproportionately White. Of the 33 states and Washington, D.C. that are overrepresented, 28 of them are Whiter than the national average. Washington, D.C. and the 12 states with three or four electoral votes have populations that are only 25 percent racial and ethnic groups compared to the national average of 37 percent. On the other hand, in the four biggest states (the most under-represented), 52 percent of the population is of color.
It is true that the Electoral College can and, at times, does help voters of color. For example, in battleground states, where, because of the winner-take-all system, candidates spend a much greater amount of time campaigning, a concentrated minority can have increased power because of its potential to swing the vote. In Florida, for example, political candidates often address the concerns of Cuban Americans and elderly Americans more thoroughly because those constituencies can have a profound impact on presidential campaigns. That example notwithstanding, the Electoral College still largely continues to marginalize racial minorities. In 2000, 2004, and 2008, for example, presidential candidates ignored four of the five largest and most racially diverse states—California, Texas, New York, and Illinois—since those states weren’t seen as competitive. As Texas A&M Professor George Edward put it in his book Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America, “The electoral college thus discourages attention to the interests of African Americans because they are unlikely to shift the outcome in a state as a whole.”
Under the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system, not only can certain groups be ignored, they can be actively disregarded. The racial divide between political parties is especially clear in the South.
With the greatest concentration of Black Americans in the former Confederate states, where they make up 20 to 37 percent of the population, the winner-take-all system leaves Black Americans essentially without a vote in Republican-dominated states.
“Almost all African Americans in these [Southern] states vote for Democratic presidential candidates, but in a competitive election nationally, these states are likely to go Republican,” Edwards wrote. “The Electoral College thus prevents the votes of African Americans in these states from contributing to the national totals of the Democratic candidate.”
And this has real consequences. In 2000, for example, former Vice President Al Gore won about 90 percent of the Black vote, compared to George W. Bush’s 10 percent. Furthermore, Gore actually received more total votes than George W. Bush. But, because of the Electoral College, Bush won the South’s electoral votes and the election.
By enabling candidates to essentially ignore racial minorities, the Electoral College discourages politicians from adequately addressing their problems and concerns. Racial minorities already tend to face disadvantages across the board compared to White Americans. Furthermore, according to a ranking of each state’s healthcare system done by the Commonwealth Fund, “Southern states scored especially poorly across all of the dimensions,” which included insurance coverage, avoidable hospital stays, vaccination rates, obesity rates, and more. And while the region struggled all around, the Deep South’s racial and ethnic minorities “faced some of the widest disparities relative to the national average across all of the indicators assessed in [the Commonwealth Fund’s] Equity dimension.”
This type of inequality shapes politics in sometimes unseen ways. One such example is the mortality rate for Black Americans, which is about 18 percent higher than it is for White Americans. If Black mortality rates had been similar to White mortality rates between 1970 and 2004, then an estimated million more Black Americans would have voted in the 2004 election, according to a study done by The University of Michigan’s Arline Geronimus.
In an interview with New Scientist, Geronimus explains the importance of her study: “If you’re losing a voting population, you’re losing the support for the policies that would help that population. As long as there’s this huge inequality in health and mortality, there’s a diminished voice to speak out against the problem.”
But the electorate is changing, even as the electoral college is not. The already slowing growth of America’s White population will likely begin to decline in a decade or so. On the other hand, non-White populations already account for over 90 percent of population growth. By 2043, non-Hispanic Whites will no longer be a majority of America's population. While exploiting racism has benefitted many political campaigns historically, the demographics are quickly making this strategy ineffective, if not downright counterproductive.