The Electoral College & "white supremacy" in America: analyzing an op-ed by Alexander Keyssar

By Robert Shaffer posted 08-12-2020 03:45:29 PM


Discussion and debate over the Electoral College has long been a mainstay of Civics and Early U.S. History courses.  Why did the framers of the Constitution institute an indirect and even convoluted system of selecting the President, rather than relying on the popular vote?  Does the winner-take-all system within each state protect the rights of states within our federal system, or does it distort elections by encouraging candidates to focus on the so-called swing states?  Does it give too much power to small states such as Wyoming and Vermont, whose electoral votes are out of proportion to their population, or too much power to large states, such as California and Texas, which deliver so many votes to one candidate regardless of the vote percentage within these states? 

Such discussion and debate should continue in social studies classes, especially in the next few months, during this presidential election campaign.  But the recent ferment over racial justice and injustice stimulated by police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests should lead social studies teachers to include in these discussions and debates the crucial issue of race, which has only infrequently factored into the issue in secondary school classrooms in the past.  A brief but instructive recent essay by Harvard University professor Alexander Keyssar – which argues convincingly that maintaining the Electoral College “has long been tied to the idea of white supremacy” – should be added to the repertoire of readings for classroom consideration of the controversial issue:


The essay, “How Has the Electoral College Survived So Long?,” appeared on-line as a New York Times op-ed on August 3, 2020, and then in the print edition on August 7, 2020, and it is quite suitable for reading by high school students.  Prof. Keyssar established himself as among the nation’s top scholars on the complex history of voting in this country with his book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000, revised edition 2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and which won the Beveridge Prize of the American Historical Association.  Last week’s op-ed came out in conjunction with Prof. Keyssar’s new book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, published in July 2020.  While students should be encouraged, of course, to read any source critically, Prof. Keyssar’s deep knowledge of U.S. history lends credibility to his account.

Keyssar connects the Electoral College to American racism from the founding of the Republic all the way through the 1970s.  The 3/5 Compromise in the Constitution provided that states with large numbers of enslaved persons would get extra representation not only in Congress but in the Electoral College because their population included so many people who would never have a chance to vote.  Indeed, writes Keyssar, as early as 1816, during a debate in the Senate over a proposal for a national popular vote, William Wyatt Bibb of Georgia declared that with such a change states such as his “would lose the privilege the Constitution now allows them, of votes upon three-fifths of their population other than freemen.”  (Keyssar sidesteps in this op-ed the controversial claim by some that the Electoral College was established precisely in order to protect the interests of slaveholders.  Historian Garry Wills, in his fascinating and controversial book, "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003), had argued that the election of our third president in 2000 resulted directly from the "extra" electoral votes due to the 3/5 Compromise of the Southern, slave-holding states.)

These same advantages for the (white) South continued even after Emancipation, when most African American men were stripped of the right to vote from the 1890s to the early 1960s.  Voter turnout in Southern states was very low as a proportion to their entire populations when the franchise was restricted primarily to white men (and, after 1920, to white men and women), and yet the Electoral College vote of these states was still based on their total population.  Keyssar points out that powerful segregationist Southern senators derailed efforts to put into motion in 1969 and 1970 a constitutional amendment establishing the popular vote, with one white Southern senator pleading during these debates, “The Electoral College is one of the South’s few remaining political safeguards.  Let’s keep it.”

Keyssar’s essay, of course, includes more evidence and a more detailed interpretative framework for his argument – and the energetic social studies teacher might also track down a copy of his book for an even more comprehensive view.

The larger point that teachers can and must present in our classrooms is that race and racism has had a major impact on all facets of American history and government.  Addressing race and racism is not just a question of “adding” the experiences of African Americans and other people of color to the American story.  Using the lens of “race” as a category of analysis for American life, past and present, forces us to look at old questions in a new – and often more critical – light.  This insight is not new: it was a major theme of the (sadly, unsuccessful) efforts to devise national standards for U.S. and world history, coordinated by Gary Nash and his colleagues at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA in the 1990s.  The confluence of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the concomitant reevaluation of issues of race in America, and the 2020 presidential campaign should bring, through student analysis of Prof. Keyssar’s essay and other sources, fresh and more vibrant perspectives to the perennial consideration in social studies classes of the worthiness – or not – of the Electoral College.

Robert Shaffer, Ph.D.
Professor of History (and social studies education)
Shippensburg University