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Batavick: Championed by slave owners, Electoral College ignores will of the people | COMMENTARY

I’m always amused when conservatives go cherry picking in the fertile orchard of American history. They tend to be very selective about what key facts to put in their commentary baskets and which to leave on the tree because they’re judged to be inconveniently ripe. This charade is playing out now in their defense of the Electoral College.

Rightist pundits delight in lecturing us on the sanctity of the Founding Fathers’ verbiage. Their originalist’s philosophy means we must revere every word and punctuation mark in the Constitution as the stuff of sacred scripture. They believe that Tom Jefferson, Jim Madison, Alex Hamilton, and Johnny Jay had oracular powers and were able to conjure up what our society and politics would look like in 2020. They think the Founders perfectly tailored their prose to take into account today’s multi-ethnic population, gig-speed economy, glass ceilings, rampant gun violence, corporatism, ecological damage, and immigration pressures, to name just some issues impossible to have envisioned in the Philadelphia of 1787.

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Originalism is, of course, poppycock and tantamount to jamming all 330 million of us into one-size-fits-all petticoats and shifts or buckled shoes, breeches, and waistcoats. The Constitution was designed to breathe and evolve to fit the changing times. The tacked-on Bill of Rights and other Amendments are the simple proof of this. As a side note, I wonder how the Founding Fathers would react today to a president who tried to nullify the results of a fair election and refused to agree to the peaceful transfer of power.

Nowhere is this originalism more apparent than in discussions about the fairness of the Electoral College. Conservatives tell us that the founders devised this treasured quadrennial instrument to avoid the “tyranny of the majority.” This is a powerful phrase unless you consider its flip side — the “tyranny of the minority.” That’s what we have now when we elect presidents. All other democracies, not to mention our local commissioner and mayoral races and even the way we choose leaders of clubs and chairs of non-profit organizations, use majority rule, in other words, the popular vote. What’s so heretical about “the ayes have it” when choosing a U.S. president?

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Here’s the dirty, little secret our rightist friends don’t like to share: In seven of the last eight elections, Democrats won the most votes but were only awarded the presidency in five of them because of the Electoral College. It ignores the will of the people and skews Republican.

A second dirty, little secret lurks in the origin story of the Electoral College. It is causally linked to our nation’s original sin, slavery, and boy do conservatives hate to discuss such so-called “ancient history,” though we are just 155 years removed from its abolition by the 13th Amendment.

The Electoral College was devised as a sop for slave-owning states. Back in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson urged the adoption of a direct national election for president. The Virginian and slaveholder James Madison reacted to this rational suggestion by complaining, “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive (widespread) in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” In other words, the abolitionist North had more eligible men who could read, write, and vote than did the South, and they might easily move to abolish slavery.

The South’s economy was totally dependent on forced, unpaid labor, and its convention representatives needed a scheme to rig presidential elections to protect their cushy way of life. To claim a larger population, Madison proposed allowing the southern states to count each of their half million-plus slaves as two-fifths of a white male voter. In the interest of compromise, the northern states agreed, and this shameful solution inflated the South’s number of electoral votes, guaranteeing the continuance of slavery.

For example, back then states could cast a total of 91 electoral votes, and Virginia was awarded 12 of them following the compromise. Since this was more than a quarter of the 46 required for a candidate’s victory, the Old Dominion state wielded great power. It is no coincidence that from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant 12 U.S. presidents were slaveowners and six of them hailed from Virginia.

Of course, slavery is now long gone, but the southern and western states still wield an inordinate amount of power because of the Electoral College. Given its unsavory roots, why in the world would we want to retain it? What’s “fair and balanced” about the “tyranny of the minority” and a vestige of slavery?

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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