Republicans Confuse the Electoral College With ‘the American People’

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Donald Trump displays maps showing that his supporters occupied more acreage than Hillary Clinton’s. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

“We have a lot of people in the White House of Donald J. Trump who not only have been comfortable working for Hillary [Clinton], but they probably would have had a Cabinet post as well,” complains ousted White House aide Sebastian Gorka. “That is not sound, that is not what the American people voted for.” In point of fact, a White House staffed by people who would work for Hillary Clinton is precisely what the American people voted for. That is why 2.9 million more American people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.

The Electoral College has turned two of the last five Republican national-vote defeats into victories. The Republican Party has developed a very convoluted way of suppressing this strange reality. The larger part of their response consists of constant implicit or explicit equations of the election result with the will of the voting public. So frequently do Republican partisans depict their candidate as the conscious choice of the majority that they themselves forget the actual circumstances of his election.

The second, much smaller element involves justifying the Electoral College as a necessary brake against majority rule. On the rare occasions when the merits of the Electoral College do arise, Republicans will explain that the electoral vote system is the perfect expression of the Founders’ divine will, and changing to a national-vote system would create all manner of evils. Then, when they have satisfied their qualms about the creaky presidential voting apparatus, they revert to talking about the election as if it really was a national popular vote.

The second part, Electoral College defenses, are few and far between, largely because it is more pleasant to pretend that the president is elected by the electorate than to argue why he should not be. A precious example of the genre comes in the form of an op-ed by Josiah Peterson, titled “No, Jesse Jackson, the Electoral College Isn’t Racist,” in The Federalist — which at this point, lord help us, is probably one of the more prestigious conservative organs.

Jackson did not call the electoral college racist, but he did recently call for its abolition alongside the removal of Confederate memorials. The Electoral College does have both an origin and a contemporary effect connected to white supremacy. The origin is that the Founders agreed to create it in part to placate the demands of slaveholders. The contemporary aspect is that the Electoral College today happens to give disproportionate influence to states with a larger-than-average share of white voters.

Peterson disputes both these effects without showing any understanding of either. He argues, weirdly, that the “three-fifths clause” limited the influence of slaveholders, rather than magnifying it:

Southern states did effectively have more representation through the college than they might have had under a popular vote of all free persons. But the oft-maligned Three-Fifths Clause was designed to limit the influence of slave states in congressional apportionment. Since congressional apportionment determines the number of a state’s electors—one for each representative and senator in Congress—limiting Southern representation in Congress limited their representation in the Electoral College.

The three-fifths clause is relevant, but in exactly the opposite of the manner Peterson describes. The Founders debated the possibility of electing the president through a national vote. The popular vote had already been used successfully in some statewide elections for governor. But Southerners objected that they deserved a bonus for their slaves. A straight national vote would only count people who voted. Awarding points to blocs of states, which could be enhanced by their populations of enslaved people treated as property, would give those states more power.

Under a national vote, southern states “could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes,” argued James Madison. Southern states would lose influence under direct election, another southern delegate complained, because “her slaves will have no suffrage.” As Paul Finkelman concluded, “one of the central purposes of the electoral college … was to insure that the largest state, Virginia, would be able to elect the national president, and that the slave states would be able to use their slave population to influence the election of the president.”

The South’s argument was obviously completely preposterous. They wanted political representation for a class of people to whom they granted no political rights whatsoever. The slave states treated African-Americans as property rather than as people in every way except in political representation, a demand clearly driven by their desire to enjoy disproportionate influence in Congress and the presidency. The three-fifths clause might have been a politically necessary compromise in order to pass the Constitution, but Peterson’s notion that it was “designed to limit the influence of slave states” is utterly backwards.

Peterson goes on to inform his readers that this has been moot since “the abolition of slavery under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Slavery was in fact abolished by the 13th Amendment. (Source: Constitution of the United States of America.)

Peterson also disputes that the Electoral College gives disproportionate influence to heavily white states:

The idea that the college is racist today because it boosts the influence of predominantly white, rural states is also flawed. The college supports low-population states regardless of their racial makeup. While Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Vermont are disproportionately white, the college also boosts Delaware, Washington DC, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Mexico, some of the most diverse regions of the country.

But he ignores the main impact of the Electoral College, which is to minimize the power of large segments of the country by packing them into uncompetitive states. The Electoral College’s main effect is to concentrate political influence in the hands of residents of a handful of swing states. That is precisely how Donald Trump managed to win the election while falling nearly 3 million votes short. His white working-class base was conveniently packed into a handful of states with the most clout.

That is not an anomaly. States that benefit from the Electoral College are whiter than average, which means the system gives white voters more influence over presidential elections. As Andrew Gelman and Pierre-Antoine Kremp calculate, “whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the ‘other’ category.” Peterson does not indicate anywhere that he is aware of this dynamic.

The most harrowing passage in Peterson’s column is the tagline, which states that he is “the author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Electoral College: Critical to Our Republic.’’’ Yes, the conservative pundit who lacks familiarity with basic questions like “what the three-fifths clause did” or “who benefits from the Electoral College?” or “which amendment abolished slavery?” is the author of a book defending the Electoral College.

GOP Confuses Electoral College With ‘the American People’