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It’s Time to Abolish the Racist, Voter-Suppressing Electoral College

The right to vote may not be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but voter suppression is.

Madeleine Freeman

November 3, 2020
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Image by Amy Swan

Despite what the millions of “I voted” selfies on social media and countless “get out the vote” campaigns by corporations, celebrities, and dating apps alike might suggest, the millions of Americans casting their votes in the 2020 presidential election are not actually voting directly for the next president and vice president of the United States. 

When people fill out their ballots for the Republican or Democratic ticket, they’re really voting to choose a group of electors from their respective states who in December will cast their votes for the president and vice president. In most states, all the electors’ votes go to the candidate who receives the most “popular votes” — even if that’s only a plurality. Most of these electors aren’t chosen by voters, and they aren’t ultimately obligated to vote for the candidate they pledged to support when appointed. 

This is the Electoral College, a mechanism of voter suppression established in the U.S. Constitution that ensures minority rule in favor of the candidates and political parties of the ruling class. Call it what you will — “representative democracy” or “indirect democracy” — but in a country with a population of more than 320 million people, 538 individuals are ultimately responsible for electing the president and vice president. In other words, roughly 0.00016 percent of the population chooses the highest offices of the U.S. government.

By now, it’s no secret that the Electoral College is one of the most undemocratic institutions of U.S. “democracy.” Since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, there have been more than 700 attempts to amend or abolish the Electoral College, all of which have failed to pass the Senate. But in recent years, the crisis of the U.S. regime — a crisis that saw the rise and subsequent election of Donald Trump and a resounding defeat of the Democratic Party establishment in 2016 — has cast new light on just how undemocratic an institution like the Electoral College really is. Calls for its abolishment received renewed vigor after Trump won the presidency without the majority of the popular vote. This year, a Gallup poll reported that more than 61 percent of Americans support replacing the Electoral College with a direct popular vote.

The Electoral College is yet another stinking institution of a rotten, racist system. It essentially erases the votes of millions of working people — particularly working-class people of color — living in the United States. It gives undue weight to conservative minorities, reinforces U.S. bipartisanship, and maintains a political status quo that exploits and disenfranchises working people. It’s high time to get rid of it.

Minority Rule By Design

Every aspect of the U.S. republic was set up to ensure the rule of the majority by a small minority of wealthy landowners and to protect this hierarchy under the guise of “democracy.” For its part, the Electoral College has historically functioned as a mechanism to prevent the great majority of voters in the United States from having any control over who occupies the offices of president and vice president of the United States. Instead, it keeps that deciding power firmly in the hands of bourgeois political representatives who protect the interests of the capitalist class. James Madison said as much in the Federalist Papers, claiming that “pure democracy” would give disproportionate power to the “common interest or passion” and pose a threat to “the rights to property.” 

The framers of the Constitution took it for granted that only wealthy, white, male landowners would ever be allowed to vote, but they also wanted to check the powers of Congress and prevent a scenario in which certain landowners rallied behind a candidate who was “unfit” to be president — a code word for a president who could pose a threat in some form or another to capitalist hegemony and private property. 

Rather than allow for a direct popular vote, the framers instituted the intermediary Electoral College, which allocated each state a certain number of electors — based on total population, not population of actual voters — and gave the states the freedom to establish their own processes for choosing their electors based on the limited popular vote. These electors would meet to vote for the next president and vice president. From the beginning, the Electoral College was a mechanism to give the wealthy political elite and capitalists the final decision in elections.

After the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the Electoral College evolved to fulfill this purpose beyond what the framers ever imagined. With the development of political parties beginning at the end of the 18th century, states evolved their elector selection processes to be handled primarily by the state branches of the national political parties. This meant that most electors were appointed — and only to cast a vote for their party, no matter the candidate. 

Added to this was the implementation of state “winner-take-all” policies for electoral votes, which make it so the candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state — even if it is only a plurality — wins all of that state’s allotted electoral votes, no matter the percentages of votes for other candidates. Some 48 states, and Washington, D.C., handle their Electoral College votes this way.

Most importantly, however, as class struggle drove the expansion of voting rights to other groups over the years, the makeup of the Electoral College remained intact, preventing newly enfranchised groups from directly influencing the outcome of presidential elections.

Concretely, what this all means is that the United States is broken up into “red” and “blue” states and the electors in a handful of “swing states” decide the election, putting who wins the presidency into the hands of voters in states such as Florida and Michigan. This suppresses the vote of millions of voters nationwide, especially those who live in states that typically side with a particular political party. The votes of nearly 3 million Republicans in New York, for example, hardly matter for a state whose 29 electoral votes have all gone to the Democratic candidate for the past 32 years. 

The upshot is that the Electoral College distorts the actual breakdown of votes in the United States and gives undue political influence to states that are less populous and less politically diverse. This allows for scenarios such as in 2000 and 2016, when the candidates who won the popular vote still lost the presidency in the Electoral College vote. In 2016, Trump was elected even though Hillary Clinton won a significant majority of the 139 million popular votes cast, because he won the necessary votes in the Electoral College. When it came down to it, only a tiny percentage of votes in “battleground states” decided the 2016 election — the rest of the votes were essentially erased by the system.

A Direct Product of Slavery and White Supremacy

The Electoral College as we know it was established to keep Southern slave owners happy and to protect the crucial role the enslavement of Black people played in a burgeoning U.S. capitalist economy. Today, it serves as a mechanism to silence the votes of millions of working class people of color and to amplify the political influence of less populous, predominantly white and conservative states. 

The number of electoral votes per state, like seats in the House of Representatives, is determined by population. As Scott Cooper explains in “The True Nature of the U.S. Regime,” when the Constitution was being written, states that had built their economies around slavery wanted to ensure they would have ample representation at the national level compared to the industrialized states of the North, in order to protect their interests — namely, the maintenance of the slave system. A direct, popular vote would give more power to the northern states, which were more populous, more diverse, and in a few cases  had slightly more extensive suffrage (including, for a short period, some freed slaves being allowed to vote). Given that slaves made up 40 percent of the population in 1789, slave owners argued that slaves should be counted as part of the total population — even though slaves had no rights as citizens and would have absolutely no say in elections or any part of the government. 

In order to make sure the Southern slave owning states would ratify the Constitution, the framers struck the “three-fifths compromise,” which established that enslaved Black people would be counted as three-fifths of a person in the states’ overall populations. It had the intended effect of giving undue political weight to states whose electorates were mainly composed of wealthy, white slave owners. As Cooper writes, “With 200,000 slaves, Virginia ended up with more than one-fourth of the total electoral votes then required to win the presidency.” And for the vast majority of the first 50 years of the Constitution, slave-owning Virginians held the presidency, governing in the interests of capitalists in the North while ensuring the maintenance of the slave system in the South.

Today, institutionalized slavery is no longer protected by the U.S. Constitution, but the Electoral College — combined with other methods of voter suppression — continues to suppress the votes of working people of color and the entire working class. After the end of institutionalized slavery, Jim Crow voter suppression laws effectively disenfranchised millions of Black people in the United States, keeping the electoral votes of Southern states solidly tied to the agenda of Southern white segregationists.

Further, the Electoral College gives undue political influence to less populous and less politically diverse states. Wyoming, for example, has three electoral votes, or about one per every 190,000 people. California has 55 votes, or one per 715,000 residents. In other words, although Wyoming has fewer votes than California, those votes give Wyoming disproportionate deciding power in the Electoral College, effectively diluting the votes of the much more populous and diverse state of California. This has wide-ranging implications for shifts in voting demographics.

As we’ve seen over the course of the 2020 election, the political landscape of the popular vote is changing. States that have historically been tied reliably to one party, such as North Carolina and Texas, are now up for grabs. But the Electoral College, which allocates the number of electors by population and gives all of a state’s electoral votes to whomever wins a plurality of the popular vote, stands in the way of these shifts finding expression at the national level and continues to disenfranchise Black and Brown people.

Abolish the Electoral College

Since its inception, and especially since voting was expanded to include non-property owners, women, and Black people, the Electoral College has stood as an obstacle to the democratic rights of working and oppressed people across the United States. No other “democracy” in the world has a system like it. As Marx once observed, “the oppressed are allowed every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class will represent and repress them” — but the working class and oppressed in the United States don’t even vote directly for those representatives. The Electoral College systematically erases the votes of millions of people in each presidential election cycle and gives disproportionate power to a small minority of voters.

The Electoral College does exactly what it was designed to do. There is no reforming it. The Electoral College is a product of slavery and it upholds the same racist institutions that disenfranchise people of color in the United States to this day. If the voices of working people are to be heard in U.S. elections, even in what is still ultimately a bourgeois democracy, we must fight to end this method of voter suppression that is enshrined in one of the country’s founding documents.

But we must realize that any hope of winning this demand rests on the shoulders of a movement of people in the streets, not with politicians in Congress. While in recent years the Electoral College has worked in favor of Republican candidates, both parties of capital benefit by keeping it intact. In 2012, Barack Obama won all 29 electoral votes in Florida even though he won the popular vote by less than 1 percent. But beyond individual instances of favoring one party over the other, the Electoral College in general works to maintain the status quo, and therefore both parties of capital have a vested interest in protecting it. If Biden wins the election this year, you can be sure that all the Democrats who today call for abolishing the Electoral College will go eerily quiet. 

The working class and oppressed who see that we have no political representation in the current regime cannot be silent. We must challenge this institution that suppresses our vote so thoroughly. We must organize to abolish the Electoral College and guarantee a direct, national, popular vote. Even in the context of the U.S. regime, socialists have a responsibility to stand for one person, one vote.

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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