Despite the electoral college’s central role in the symbolic progress of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office and Senator Kamala Harris’ election as the first female (and Black/South Asian) vice president in American history, this institution remains a largely anti-democratic tool.
Counting enslaved Blacks, who primarily resided in the South, gave this slaveholding region more political power over the electoral college than its actual proportion of free citizens would otherwise have had. It’s a devil’s bargain the nation has wrestled with — and one that Black people have cruelly suffered from — ever since.
Rooted in White Southerners’ fears that they would be politically dominated by Northern interests after the Civil War, the electoral college’s anti-democratic nature continued, as Black people were denied citizenship and voting rights through ritualized racial terror, intimidation and unconstitutionally racist policies that nonetheless allowed the south to win the political peace after defeat on the battleground.
President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious Great Society legislation of the 1960’s, especially its immigration reform and civil and voting rights policies, helped to fundamentally transform the racial and ethnic composition of American society — and it served to politically realign the two major parties. The historic Republican Party of antislavery represented by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass became the improbable refuge for angry and disaffected Whites, especially in the South, while racial progressives and liberals decamped to the Democratic Party in a switch of loyalties that would have seemed impossible a century before.
In the age of Black Lives Matter and Covid-19, the electoral college continues to undermine our democracy. It does this through polarizing red states versus blue states in ways that amplify our political differences while glossing over the potential common ground of pursuing citizenship and dignity for all Americans.
The electoral college exacerbates racial privilege by allowing predominantly White and largely homogenous states an outsized say over the democratic future of a country that is increasingly multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic.
Imagine a presidential election, the first in history, where every vote truly counted as an expression of popular will. Presidential candidates could and would no longer fly over red and blue states. They would be forced to fully engage with rural, suburban and urban voters in ways that could potentially diminish polarization. Finding common ground would be a matter of political survival. Abolishing the electoral college would also ensure that President Trump’s unethical efforts to circumvent popular will would be the last of their kind.
As it stands now, the electoral college is an archaic expression of the original founders’ limited vision of the nation. They could scarcely have imagined an America with a Black president and vice president, one who is a Black woman at that. A nation where the ancestors of the formerly enslaved held positions of power and were perhaps the most important voting bloc in the land.
We have arrived at a new chapter in our history, one where our very growth and maturation as a nation requires us to move beyond the electoral college and embrace direct democracy once and for all.