How The Electoral College Was Created To Give The South More Votes

By | September 30, 2020

test article image
(Howard Chandler Christy/Wikimedia Commons)

To paraphrase the Insane Clown Posse, "The electoral college—how does it work?" We all more or less know that a candidate needs to win a majority of the electoral college, regardless of their showing in the popular vote, to win the presidency, but since the 2000 election, this function of the government has felt fairly arbitrary. Way back in its infancy, however, the burgeoning U.S. government decided a fail-safe was needed to ensure that every state in the Union had a voice, not just the states with the densest population.

Of Course, Slavery Was Part Of It

In 1787, delegates assembled in Philadelphia to determine how the president and vice president would be chosen, because 11 years into being a country, they figured it was time to check that task off their to-do list. Some proposed letting Congress figure it out, but that would have resulted in a power imbalance between branches of the government, so that idea was scrapped. Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed a simple popular vote, but delegates had issues with that plan as well. Specifically, Virginia's James Madison argued that a popular vote would always favor Northern states because they had more voters. That might seem perfectly fair, but to many Americans, the "States" half of the country's name was and is pretty important. Madison proposed a compromise: Why not count the South's more than half a million slaves?

test article image
(The White House Historical Association/Wikimedia Commons)

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Of course, slaves in the U.S. had no right to vote. In fact, under the electoral college, the people didn't (and technically, still don't) vote for the president at all. Each state appoints a certain number of independent electors based on the state's population, who have voted, throughout U.S. history, with varying degrees of influence from the people. What the Southern delegates were suggesting was to include slaves, who had basically no rights as Americans, in their population counts.

The members of the Philadelphia Convention agreed to a compromise: They allowed Southern states to count every three out of five slaves as people, supposedly balancing out the populations of the territories and netting the South more electoral votes. Thanks to the Three-Fifths Compromise, Virginia left the convention with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral votes, more than one-quarter needed to win a presidential election. They had, perhaps, taken fairness to the opposite extreme. It's no surprise that four of the first five presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—were slave holders from Virginia.