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UTEP Speaker Argues Merits of Abolishing the Electoral College

Sep 25, 2019

The Electoral College has resulted in five elections in which the candidate with fewer votes became president. That includes George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.

Efforts to abolish the Electoral College have been gaining public support. Dr. Paul Finkelman is president of Gratz College in Philadelphia. The history professor spoke about the issue at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Finkelman said the Electoral College was explicitly designed to protect slavery. Citing debate notes from the Constitutional Convention, Finkelman said Virginia delegate James Madison proposed the Electoral College so Southern states could include slaves in the tally.

“James Madison said the most appropriate thing would be to have the people elect the president. But he said we can’t do that because the Southern states, particularly his home state of Virginia would have no influence on account of what he said are the negroes which meant the slaves. Representative Williamson from North Carolina said exactly the same thing. They understand that while Virginia’s the largest state, if you don’t have the slaves folded in, it’s not the largest state," Finkelman said.

As a result, Madison proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted three out of every five slaves as people to determine the number of seats Southern states held in the House of Representatives. 

Dr. Paul Finkelman argued that the Electoral College is an "undemocratic albatross" that undermines the voter's willingness to participate in elections. Finkelman spoke at the University of Texas at El Paso as part of the schools Centennial Lecture Series on Sept. 16, 2019.
Credit J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

Finkelman said the political power the South gained from owning slaves allowed Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, to defeat John Adams in the Election of 1800.

“Most of the scholars who debate this don’t want to face the reality that slavery has an enormous influence on the Constitutional Convention and on the writing of the Constitution," Finkelman said. "There’s a scholar who recently said that slavery is not anywhere in the Constitution and you only have to look at the Three-Fifths Clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause, the Slave Trade Clause, the Electoral College and ask 'What are you reading? You’re not reading the same document that everybody else read.'”

In addition, Finkelman said the notion that the Electoral College was designed to protect small states from being dominated by large ones is incorrect.

Rather, he said the issue centered on how to best represent large states. Finkelman said the Constitutional Convention at one time considered letting state governors choose the president. That would have given small states disproportionate power.

“Furthermore, under the Electoral College as it’s first created, the large states dominate the presidential election but in the modern world, the small states have an outsized power because there are, first of all, so many small states and second, because of the two Senators plus the House, they get proportionally far more power than their populations should entitle them to," Finkelman said.

Roughly two in three voters say they think presidential elections should be decided based on the popular vote, according to a 2018 Atlantic/PRRI poll. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have shown interest abolishing the system. Even President Trump opposed the Electoral College–before it won him the election.

There may be a way to reform the system without passing a Constitutional Amendment. 15 states, including New Mexico, have signed a compact that would award their electoral votes to the popular vote winner. The agreement takes effect when enacted by states totaling more than 270 electoral votes, the number needed to win the White House.

Whether the compact needs Congressional approval is another debate. But under a national popular vote, Finkelman said every vote would count, giving legitimacy to the presidency.

“The problem with a minority president is that a majority of the people don’t think that person is entitled to be president. That creates a huge disconnect between government of the people and the person who is in charge of the country," Finkelman said. "The reality is if the president has the popular majority, the president has the wherewithal to say  ‘I speak for the American people’ rather than ‘I speak for a minority of the American people and I don’t care what the majority thinks,’ which is what we get now.”

Finkelman added while the Electoral College currently favors the Republican Party, it’s favored other parties in the past and there’s no guarantee it won’t favor the Democratic Party in another election.

“This is not about partisan politics. This is not about which party will win. This is about whether we have a government as Abraham Lincoln said ‘Of the People, by the People and for the People.’ And you can only have a government of the people and by the people if the people are electing their leader," Finkelman said.

“We the People” to be exact.