The Whitewashed Reality Behind the Electoral College:
An Institution Set Up to Protect Slavery

December 9, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


When the final tally is in from the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton is projected to win the popular vote by about 2.5 million votes. But Donald Trump, of course, is going to be declared the elected president if things continue on their present course.

How does Donald Trump lose the popular vote by over two million, and get elected president? The answer: the Electoral College. Each state is assigned a number of votes in the Electoral College more or less based on population. And in almost every state, all the state’s Electoral College votes go to the candidate who gets the most votes from voters.

The Electoral College is an institution set up to protect slavery.

The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College”

In an article aptly titled “The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College,” legal historian Paul Finkelman writes, “the records of the [founding Constitutional] Convention show that in fact the connection between slavery and the [Electoral] college was deliberate, and very much on the minds of many delegates, including James Madison.”1

The real impetus behind the Electoral College was to multiply the influence of slaveholders on U.S. politics. The people who wrote the U.S. Constitution aimed to create a unified, powerful state that could stand up to domination or interference by European powers, carry out genocide and theft of land from the Native peoples, and enforce exploitation in the form of capitalist wage-slavery as well as outright enslavement of Black people. And in order to forge that “more perfect union,” concessions were made to give representatives of the slave owners disproportionate influence in government. The Electoral College was a key part of that.

In the midst of debate among the “Founding Fathers” over how to elect the President, James Madison argued that “the people at large” were “the fittest” to choose the president. His proposal was consistent with a foundational cohering myth in the history and present-day reality of the United States—that this is a country founded in the interests of “We the people…”

In Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, Bob Avakian digs deeply into how the rulers of this country have aligned significant sections of white people in the U.S. to identify with the exploitive, oppressive ruling class. And how dehumanizing and excluding Black people and Native Americans from any rights at all fits into that picture. And he shines a light on the profound implications of that for today. (Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy is available from the publisher, RCP Publications; from Revolution Books in NYC and Berkeley; and from and other online book vendors.)

In the light of what is identified in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, we can see how and why the authors of the U.S. Constitution wanted to formally include some non-propertied whites in the direct election of the president.

But… having the president elected by popular vote posed “one difficulty…of a serious nature,” as James Madison put it. Madison, one of the most influential of the “Founding Fathers,” noted that the “right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.” In other words: if the president really was elected on the basis of one man, one vote, the slave states would not have sufficient say in national politics. Madison himself was a slave owner. So were just under half of the other authors of the U.S. Constitution.

The “solution” that the founders of the U.S. came up with was two-fold. First, for purposes of representation in the national government, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Of course slaves were not really considered human beings. They were considered property, deprived of any rights at all, and at the total mercy of merciless slave owners. But they got counted for the purpose of figuring out how much representation slave states would have in the government. White voters in slave states were essentially given a huge number of extra electoral college votes each through this “three-fifths rule.”


And this “three-fifths rule” was applied to the Electoral College. Slave states were given votes in the Electoral College far beyond the actual number of (white, male) voters in those states. For the defining first 90 or so years of the United States, the Electoral College served to enshrine and protect the interests of slaveholders, and that was reflected in who was elected president through the Electoral College.

Today: The Electoral College as an Instrument Perpetuating White Supremacy

Even after the formal end of slavery, the Electoral College has continued to give greatly disproportionate influence to the votes of white people—in particular, white people in sparsely populated states and rural areas. This was a deciding factor in the election of Donald Trump.

The votes of 100,000 people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who voted for Trump counted the same as the votes of over three million people in California who voted against him.

The way the Electoral College is set up, the votes of Black people in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee literally didn’t count. Here’s how that breaks down: Voters in those cities voted overwhelmingly for Clinton (Trump got just 15 percent of the vote in Philadelphia, for example). But because those cities were in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that went for Trump by very narrow margins, all the electoral votes in those states went to Trump.

And the votes of over three million people in California (a state that is majority non-white) didn’t count either (Trump lost California by well over three million votes). That’s because anything beyond a one-vote margin in any state is discounted in the Electoral College system.


Donald Trump lost the presidential election by two and a half million people in the popular vote. But he is on his way to being declared the “winner” of the election for president, based on the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was set up to protect the interests of slave owners. The fact that it endures today, and played the deciding role in this election, reflects how deeply slavery and the continuing oppression of Black people continue to define nature of this country.

An election decided by an institution like that is illegitimate.


1. Finkelman’s article includes, from his perspective of upholding the essential nature of the U.S. Constitution, important refutation of influential and harmful liberal/populist critiques of the Electoral College, which deny or bury the central factor of slavery. He notes that “The few [widely promoted histories of the Electoral College] that notice slavery mention it only in passing, and then ignore it, perhaps because an extended investigation of slavery and the electoral college would undermine traditional political science categories.” His article is available online here. [back]


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