2016 elec­toral map | Wiki­media Commons

Since its con­ception 250 years ago, the Elec­toral College inhibited democracy. Its original design at the con­sti­tu­tional con­vention still informs how it operates today: namely, to protect the property of America’s landed class.

Democracy ought to be under­stood as the foun­da­tional assertion that human beings should be able to control their own lives and destiny. Our fate shouldn’t be dic­tated by a despot, an elected exec­utive, or tyran­nical cor­po­ra­tions.

Aris­totle took democracy seri­ously and under­stood its flaws. To account for its short­comings in gov­ernment, in “The Pol­itics” book IV, chapter 11, he pro­posed reducing inequality by ensuring a large, prop­ertied middle class so that less-priv­i­leged cit­izens wouldn’t oppress the wealthy in turn.

The U.S. Constitution’s framers rep­resent a serious departure from what Aris­totle had in mind. James Madison in par­ticular saw America’s new gov­ernment not as a demo­c­ratic one, but one which, through insti­tu­tions like an appointed senate and the Elec­toral College, would be con­trolled by those who own property.

Thank­fully, Madison himself pre­served the debates at the con­sti­tu­tional con­vention with dutiful notes. 

“An increase of pop­u­lation will of necessity increase the pro­portion of those who will labour under all the hard­ships of life,” Madison wrote. He worried that power would shift into the hands of the working class. “Symptoms of a lev­eling spirit,” he con­tinued, “as we have under­stood, have suf­fi­ciently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger.”

Madison, the latest addition to Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk, framed the gov­ernment to guard against this future danger, which would be brought about by expanding democracy. 

“In England, at this day, if elec­tions were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed pro­pri­etors would be insecure,” Madison said, according to the notes of Robert Yates. “Our gov­ernment ought to secure the per­manent interests of the country against inno­vation.”

These con­clu­sions led the framers to con­struct an appointed senate in order “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” Madison noted, and this attitude informed the con­struction of the Elec­toral College.

At the con­vention, James Wilson pro­posed a direct election of the nation’s supreme exec­utive. Though the idea appealed to Madison, he rec­og­nized that this system would favor the north.

“The right of suf­frage was much more dif­fusive in the Northern than the Southern States,” Madison wrote, “and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.”

Madison’s worry had little to do with large or small states, but with north and south. Pop­u­la­tions between these regions were roughly equal, but if the country decided the pres­ident by a popular vote, the sheer number of north­erners — who (right­fully) had the fran­chise — out­num­bered that of the southern states. In addition, nearly one-third of the south’s pop­u­lation were enslaved Africans.

Madison’s solution was the Elec­toral College — to allocate rep­re­sen­ta­tives to elect the pres­ident based on pop­u­lation, not votes. Coupled with the infamous three-fifths com­promise, the Elec­toral College allowed the south to maintain a presence in pres­i­dential elec­tions while avoiding the “inno­vation” of extending democracy.

The plan worked. For 60 years, until Millard Fillmore sat in the oval office, every pres­ident except the Adamses owned slaves. As a result of America’s per­verse voting con­fig­u­ration, slavery sur­vived well into the second half of the 19th century, African Amer­icans didn’t secure the right to vote until 1965, and 2020 marks only the 100th year women can vote.

If the framers adopted direct election of the pres­ident, states would’ve faced tremendous pressure to “innovate” and extend the fran­chise since extra votes give indi­vidual states more power. Instead, states limited the right to vote to a select few. Southern states could increase their political power by expanding their slave pop­u­la­tions, which pro­longed slavery and encouraged the slave trade.

The Elec­toral College appor­tions voting power equal to the number of rep­re­sen­ta­tives and sen­ators a state has in Con­gress. One common argument for main­taining the Elec­toral College posits that, without it, can­di­dates will ignore the interests of states with fewer rep­re­sen­ta­tives. But this argument makes sense only if we presume that landowners (or land itself), not cit­izens, should vote. Insofar as there are more indi­vidual voters in a state, not more rep­re­sen­ta­tives and sen­ators in Con­gress, that state should gather more attention from can­di­dates.

The Elec­toral College still favors white landowners and dis­ad­van­tages poor people of color who mostly reside in pop­ulous states. Winning smaller states, which gen­erally have much whiter pop­u­la­tions than the country in general, offers a sig­nif­icant advantage. In Wyoming, for example, one elec­toral vote rep­re­sents about 200,000 people, but in Cal­i­fornia, one elec­toral vote rep­re­sents more than 700,000.

Right now, can­di­dates are rewarded threefold for pri­or­i­tizing the interests of Wyoming res­i­dents rather than those in Cal­i­fornia. The Elec­toral College today allows policies which favor the interests of white and wealthy landowners to thrive inor­di­nately: some­thing the framers them­selves designed.

As the 2020 election looms large, so do the legacies of our country’s archaic insti­tu­tions. Only after a reck­oning with its founding and the sys­temic prej­u­dices it pro­duced will America enjoy the fullness of democracy that it flaunts so proudly.


Cal Abbo is a senior studying soci­ology.