[ Ed. Note : Tara Ross is a retired lawyer and author of several books, including “The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule,” and “We Elect a President: The Story of Our Electoral College.”]
“There you go again,” Ronald Reagan famously joked in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter painted an inaccurate picture of one of his policies. Perhaps he’d say the same of those who are distorting the history of the Electoral College today.
New York’s newest congresswoman, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been quick to jump onto this bandwagon, recently labeling the Electoral College a “shadow of slavery’s power on America.” Others have called it a “living symbol of America’s original sin,” an “antiquated relic of slavery,” or even a “pro-slavery compromise.”
Mere hours into the new Congress, a bill was introduced to eliminate this “outdated” system.
Such a view of the Electoral College’s roots threatens to become conventional wisdom, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Obviously, some of the Founders owned slaves. Compromises were made in America’s early years because North and South couldn’t agree on whether to continue the institution. Just as obviously, virtually all Americans today wish that slavery had never existed. It’s a part of America’s heritage that is clearly at odds with America’s founding principles.
That does not mean, however, that the Constitution and its presidential election process are simply a “relic of slavery.” The discussions at the Constitutional Convention were shaped more by the delegates’ study of history and political philosophy, as well as their own experiences with Parliament and the state legislatures. They wanted to avoid the mistakes that had been made in other governments. They sought to establish a better constitution that would stand the test of time.
George Washington expressed this conviction, felt so strongly by the founding generation: “[T] he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of government,” he concluded, “are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
His words echoed an argument that James Madison had made about a year and a half earlier. Only a republic, Madison had written, “would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” He thought the experiment worthwhile. The Constitution met these criteria.
Nevertheless, some modern commentators brush this history aside and insist that the compromises at the convention were nothing more than attempts to preserve slavery. Americans, they say, have been fooled into thinking that their heritage is more admirable than it is. The specific charges about the Electoral College in this context are inaccurate, but they need to be addressed since they are raised so often.
First, critics sometimes cite the Constitution’s “three-fifths” compromise, which determined how slaves would be counted in apportioning congressional representation. The South wanted to count each slave as a whole person. The North did not want to count slaves at all—a larger population would give the South more voting power. In the end, convention delegates agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.
But did that compromise really do more for the South or for the North?
If slaves had been counted as whole persons (as the South wanted), then the South would have had even more representatives in Congress. In other words, while the three-
[See Electoral, Page 5A]