Right from the get-go, the Electoral College has produced no shortage of lessons about the impact of racial entitlement in selecting the president. History buffs and Hamilton fans are aware that in its first major failure, the Electoral College produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his putative running mate, Aaron Burr. What’s less known about the election of 1800 is the way the Electoral College succeeded, which is to say that it operated as one might have expected, based on its embrace of the three-fifths compromise. The South’s baked-in advantages—the bonus electoral votes it received for maintaining slaves, all while not allowing those slaves to vote—made the difference in the election outcome. It gave the slaveholder Jefferson an edge over his opponent, the incumbent president and abolitionist John Adams. To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third president “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” That election continued an almost uninterrupted trend of southern slaveholders and their doughfaced sympathizers winning the White House that lasted until Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
In 1803, the Twelfth Amendment modified the Electoral College to prevent another Jefferson-Burr–type debacle. Six decades later, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, thus ridding the South of its windfall electors. Nevertheless, the shoddy system continued to cleave the American democratic ideal along racial lines. In the 1876 presidential election, the Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but some electoral votes were in dispute, including those in—wait for it—Florida. An ad hoc commission of lawmakers and Supreme Court justices was empaneled to resolve the matter. Ultimately, they awarded the contested electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who had lost the popular vote. As a part of the agreement, known as the Compromise of 1877, the federal government removed the troops that were stationed in the South after the Civil War to maintain order and protect black voters.
The deal at once marked the end of the brief Reconstruction era, the redemption of the old South, and the birth of the Jim Crow regime. The decision to remove soldiers from the South led to the restoration of white supremacy in voting through the systematic disenfranchisement of black people, virtually accomplishing over the next eight decades what slavery had accomplished in the country’s first eight decades. And so the Electoral College’s misfire in 1876 helped ensure that Reconstruction would not remove the original stain of slavery so much as smear it onto the other parts of the Constitution’s fabric, and countenance the racialized patchwork democracy that endured until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
What’s clear is that, more than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern whites, the Electoral College continues to do just that. The current system has a distinct, adverse impact on black voters, diluting their political power. Because the concentration of black people is highest in the South, their preferred presidential candidate is virtually assured to lose their home states’ electoral votes. Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably red in recent presidential elections. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. It’s the precise reason for the success of the southern strategy. It’s precisely how, as Buckley might say, the South has prevailed.