Ever since our nation’s founding, the issue of equal voting rights has been central to our definition of democracy.
After we fought the Civil War to end black slavery – the ultimate contradiction of living in a free republic – the country enacted the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Black people were guaranteed equal protection under the laws; black men earned the right to vote.
Women too had demanded the suffrage, a battle they finally won with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
And in a fight waged under the slogan “one person, one vote,” the civil rights movement secured enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Finally, it seemed, America had guaranteed the right of every citizen, black or white, male or female, to have equal access to the polling place – one person, one vote.
Alas, it was not true. One reason was the existence of the Electoral College, an institution that by design sought to deny one person, one vote. Almost always, this denial was connected to the issue of race.
Initially, the Electoral College became part of the presidential selection system to protect the interests of slave-holding whites. Although black slaves were not citizens and could not vote, they were counted as part of the population in Southern states based on the 3/5th clause of the Constitution. So 60 percent of slaves were counted as part of the state’s population in order to expand the number of electoral votes a Southern state could cast, even though no Southern blacks could vote.
The Electoral College – and race – once again played a decisive role in 1876-77. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, had lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. At that point, Hayes, despite being the nominee of the party that had fought the Civil War, proposed a deal. If the members of the Electoral College from Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana would cast their votes for Hayes, even though he had not won the popular vote in these states, Hayes pledged to remove the federal troops that had occupied the South to preserve and protect the rights of newly freed blacks, including the right to vote. Reconstruction came to an end, and the descendants of Confederate white power-brokers resumed control.
Majority rule was again upended in 2000. Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by 500,000 votes across the country. In Florida, one of the most contested states, thousands of blacks faced severe difficulties in casting their ballots. White Republican districts had the most up-to-date voting machines; black communities suffered a shortage of voting machines, and those that were used were old and often malfunctioned. A recount began in three disputed areas. Then, with less than 600 votes separating the two candidates, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the recount, awarding the Electoral College vote – and the presidency – to Bush.
The 2016 election simply confirmed, with stark boldness, how the Electoral College, as well as issues of race, again helped to sabotage the democratic process. In 2012, the Supreme Court eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the Shelby case, declaring that racism was over in the South and hence there was no longer a need for the Federal Government to oversee changes in voting rights in Southern states. Within months, the state legislature in North Carolina had enacted Voter ID laws designed to make it more difficult for blacks to register or to vote early.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by approximately 2.5 million votes – five times the margin of victory enjoyed by Al Gore. But once again, the Electoral College did its part to deny democracy.
In Wyoming, one electoral vote represented 72,000 ballots cast by actual citizens. In California, it took 270,000 actual votes to match that same electoral vote, giving a Wyoming citizen nearly four times more power than a California citizen in allocating votes from the Electoral College.
One person, one vote today remains a myth, confounding the essence of our democracy. If in fact we believe in one person, one vote, we need to change our electoral system now. No longer can we afford elections like those of 1876, 2000 and 2016, or the consequences that have – and will – flow from them.
William Chafe teaches history at Duke University. He is the author of 13 books, and served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1999.