Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Was the Electoral College a ‘Compromise to Protect the Institution of Slavery?’

The debate over the Electoral College, rekindled by the 2016 election, includes a falsehood usually peddled by opponents of the College. An example of this appears in an answer to a QUORA question: Which election method is more reasonable and fair, the electoral college or popular vote? (You can read my answer to this question in my post of 4/12/17.)

One correspondent answered answered.

For all other purposes, popular vote is considered most fair. Why should some people’s votes count for more when electing the president just because of the location they cast their vote? The writers of the Constitution made this one vote different than all others. Their reasons for doing so had to do with a distrust of the common citizen and a compromise to protect the institution of slavery. Both of those rationales seemed reasonable and fair at the time. Times have changed. It’s up to us to decide if those rationales are reasonable and fair under our current circumstances. I think they are not. [My emphasis]

There were compromises at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution related to slavery, such as the 3/5 Clause and Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 (which allowed the continued importation of slaves until at least 1808, at which time Congress could ban importation, if it so chose and which it ultimately did). The Electoral College was not one of those compromises.

The 3/5 Clause was a compromise that indirectly affected the number of Electors under the Electoral College, but which had nothing to do with the College. Depending on how one analyzes that compromise, it either reduced  or increased the political power of the slave states. The 3/5 clause determined how the slaves would be counted for the purpose of apportioning each state’s number of members in the House of Representatives. The Southern slave states wanted the slaves counted as whole persons, even though they considered slaves to be mere property. The Northern free states didn’t want slaves counted at all, given that their status as slaves prevented them from exercising their individual rights and thus living fully as human beings. The compromise was to count the slaves as 3/5 human for the purpose of apportionment.

I prefer to take the optimistic view. Since the number of Electors is largely determined by the number of members in the House of Representatives, counting the slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation reduced the population count of slave states and thus their number of Electors. If the slave states could have had their way, they’d surely have counted their slaves as whole persons equal to “free Persons.” It would have been better not to count the slaves at all, since they were denied their basic rights as human beings. But that was not achievable at that time. True, the 3/5 clause, like any compromise, allows both sides to claim “victory.” Pro-slave forces could claim to have gotten 3/5 instead of 0, while anti-slave forces could claim to have gotten 3/5 instead of granting a whole person. But the Electoral College itself had nothing to do with protecting the institution of slavery.

Despite its principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, principles Frederick Douglass believed “represent a permanent, universal truth as well as the most practically powerful moral and political theory ever conceived,” The Founding of this country was marred by contradiction and reaction, slavery being the biggest. But it is unjust to the framers who wanted checks and balances—of which the Electoral College was a part—and to the anti-slave forces—who got the best deal they could at the time—to claim that the Electoral College was meant to protect slavery. The fight to end slavery, which America inherited, could not be won at the Founding. It was going on before and during the Founding era and for the next 8 decades. Nowhere in the Constitutional sections that deal with the Electoral College is slavery mentioned as a factor.

Importantly, the Electoral College didn’t go away after slavery was abolished. If the Electoral College was meant to protect slavery, then why wasn’t it abolished at the same time slavery was abolished? An amendment to abolish the Electoral College certainly could have passed during the years immediately following the end of the Civil War, when the victorious abolitionists were riding high politically. This period included the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amendment in 1868, and the 15th Amendment in 1870—all of which were intended to correct the past injustices done to African-Americans, and to recognize their equality as U.S. citizens under U.S. law. Republicans certainly had the power to abolish the Electoral College in the post-war era. It wasn’t abolished at that time, because protecting slavery wasn’t the purpose of the Electoral College to begin with.

Related Reading:

On Trump as ‘Illegitimate’

No comments: