The Electoral College: Do Black Votes Matter?
Before the United States was a Democratic Republic, it was a Confederacy. And it didn’t work. For a few reasons worth revisiting today.
First, under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was so weak that it could request money form the states, but it had no power to collect it. As a result, it could not coordinate, implement, or enforce any programs, treaties or legislation. War debt was not being repaid. And there was no judiciary to enforce existing contracts.
Second, the US could not compete in the global economy. Because there was no centralized government to negotiate trade deals, no consistent trade laws to navigate, and no coordinated transportation routes through which to carry cargo, the Union could not fund itself from within (the states) or through outside (transnational) trade.
Third, without the ability to secure funds from or coordinate policy with the states, the Union was unable to defend its borders, its frontiers — or its plantations. Rebellions were increasing and was military vulnerability.
The economically starved and politically emaciated state of the federal government was so problematic, a convention was called to reform the Articles of Confederation, open up interstate and international trade, and save the American economy from complete collapse.
The twelve delegates that met for the Annapolis Convention soon came to the realization that it would take more than a few adjustments to remedy the problems presented by the Articles of Confederation. An entirely new document would need to be drafted and approved if the nation was to survive and move forward.
A second convention was called in Philadelphia and out it, the Constitution was born. But not without debate. Amongst the most contested topics were the levying of taxes and the allotment of Congressional power. At the center of both of these debates was the position of enslaved Africans. Relying on the outcome of this positioning was the electoral process.
Under the Articles of Confederation, taxes were collected from the states on the basis of property value. The states in turn would depreciate their property values to avoid paying taxes. The solution to this problem was to base taxes on population, not property. Population was also to be used to calculate the number of Representatives a state would have in the House. So, the question then became: would slaves be counted as part of the population in the Census?
The South wanted slaves to be counted in consideration of Congressional representation, but not as part of the new tax formula. The North wanted to ease its tax burden by counting slaves for tax purposes, but it didn’t want to lose power in Congress to Southern slaveholders.
The result was a compromise: the Three-fifths Compromise to be exact.
Ultimately it was decided that enslaved Africans would be counted as 3/5th a person for the census. Thus, the South gained more seats in the House and the North gained more taxes for the federal government. But because the Constitution stipulated that the number of electoral college votes given to a state be tied to the number of Congressional representatives a state has — the South also gained more representation in the Electoral College.
At the Philadelphia Convention, the process to elect a President was also redesigned.
The popular vote was rejected because it was believed that uninformed and uneducated voters would screw it up. The Virginia Plan, which called for Congress to elect the President, was rejected because of a concern that it would be a violation of the Separation of Powers. The Electoral College, it was argued, served as a balance between the power of “the people,” and the power of the states. Unfortunately, this balance was not so stable.
As originally designed, each elector in the College would cast 2 votes. The candidate with the most votes would become President, and the candidate with the second most votes would become President.
The ideological divides over slavery, state sovereignty, and federal authority that arose at the Philadelphia Convention began to fracture the political make-up of the United States, and parties began to emerge. In the 1796 Election, the vote was split giving John Adams, a Federalist, the position of President while a Democratic-Republican by the name of Thomas Jefferson became Vice President.
This was an unexpected and unfavorable consequence of the electoral process put in place in the original make-up of the Constitution. The results of the following election, though, made election reform unescapable.
For the 1800 Presidential race, The Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. They wound up tying with 73 electoral votes each. As dictated by the Constitution, it fell to the House of Representatives to decide who would be President and who would be Vice President. A political power-play ensued which led the House to vote over twenty times before it was decided that Jefferson would go on to become President and Burr would serve as Vice President.
After two contentious elections in a row, it was agreed by Congress that reform of the electoral process was absolutely necessary. As a result, an Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and passed.
The 12th Amendment establishes that one candidate for President and one separate candidate for Vice President be designated by each party. For the first time, elections in the United States would be openly partisan.
While the political field was split into Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, the nation was split into North and South. And the Electoral College would split along with it. But it would not split evenly.
The three-fifths compromise rewarded large slaveholding states with an overrepresentation in Congress that led to an overrepresentation in the Electoral College. Virginia, for example, had a population that was 10% smaller than that of Pennsylvania, but it received 20% more votes in the Electoral College.
This led to the Southern States completely dominating presidential elections. Ten of the first twelve presidents hailed from the South. Seven of them were from Virginia. This would have been unachievable if enslaved Africans were not counted towards Congressional representation — and thus Electoral College votes — in Southern slave-holding states.
Slaves were not only property. They were Executive power.
In this light, Runaway Slave laws were passed not only in an effort to preserve property, but to preserve Congressional Power. The Civil War could have been avoided if the Northern Compromise absorbed more taxes in exchange for enslaved Africans to enjoy full personhood in the Census. And voter suppression took the place of the three-fifths compromise after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed functionally ending the widespread practice of slavery.
Today, the Electoral College still stands as an institution that systematically reduces the worth of black voters. And it does so using the same formula. Black citizens are fully counted by the census, ensuring that states with large black population reap the benefits in terms of Congressional Representation. White politicians, though, don’t want black voters informing the outcome of Presidential elections. As such, voter suppression efforts have been launched since the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the American black electorate.
Following colonial logic, if the black vote is kept at 3/5ths of the population, it will fail to affect the outcome of a white controlled electoral process. In 2008, the black voter turnout rate was 64%. In 2012, it was 66%. Barrack Obama won both of those elections. And in 2016, at 59.6%, the black voter turn-out rate fell just below three-fifths line. Donald Trump won that election.
While many voting rights organizers cite the need to honor the lives lost in the struggle for voting rights in the United States, it can also be said that by not voting black individuals are re-shackling themselves and the black community to and implicit three-fifths compromise that still lives on in our electoral process.
The ambitions of the slave-owner depended on partial personhood. The freedom of the black community today depends on the vote. And today the South is rising. If the North is to regain control of the federal government, the black community must regain control at the polls.
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