Rep. John Conyers: ‘The Electoral College Is Rooted in Slavery’

Lauretta Brown | December 7, 2016 | 10:53am EST
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Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) (AP Photo)

( – Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) held a forum Tuesday on the future of the Electoral College, which he claimed was “rooted in slavery.”

“We also must face up to the cold reality that the Electoral College is rooted in slavery,” Conyers said in his opening statement.

Conyers referenced a claim by one of the witnesses, Yale Law professor Akhil Amar, that “states opposed direct elections for the president, because in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves could not vote, but the Electoral College instead let each southern state count its slaves, although with a two-fifths discount, they counted for three-fifths of a person in computing its share of the overall count.”


Conyers’ claim was backed up by a comment from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that the Electoral College was “designed to enhance the power of slave states.”

Nadler argued that “the Electoral College was designed to enhance the power of slave states. The southern states, although they gave absolutely no rights obviously to slaves, had their slaves counted as three-fifths of a person when it came to voting representation in the House, and therefore in the Electoral College. That motive although obviously no longer operative, should not influence anything today.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) (AP Photo)

Harvard History professor Alex Keyssar and Stanford historian Jack Rakove, who testified on the subject, were skeptical of the extent of the influence that slavery had on the Electoral College.

Keyssar argued that “it’s not simply the case that the Electoral College was conceived out of slavery and buttressed slavery but that the politics of race and sectional conflict have been absolutely instrumental to preserving the Electoral College over our history.”

Amar later claimed that “the role that slavery played is not merely at the founding at Philadelphia but in particular with the amendment of the system after two elections in which a Southerner Jefferson ran against a Northerner Adams and the Southerner won the South both times and the Northerner won the North both times.”

Amar also made this claim in a Vox interview, where he argued, “This pro-slavery compromise was not clear to everyone when the Constitution was adopted, but it was clearly evident to everyone when the Electoral College was amended after the Jefferson-Adams contest of 1796 and 1800. These elections were decided, in large part, by the extra electoral votes created by slavery. Without the 13 extra electoral votes created by Southern slavery, John Adams would've won even in 1800.”

Rakove countered that claim, acknowledging that while “the three-fifths clause is certainly an important original factor in the construction of the Electoral College … what takes place between 1796 and 1800 and then somewhat after 1800 is that there’s a whole set of rule changes and so if you take the 1800 election as your great test point you have to take into account all the other rule changes going on. The system was not static. There was no one model.”

“The reason I’m very skeptical of Professor Amar’s conclusion,” Rakove added, “is if you look at the congressional results and you compare the disparity between what the state legislatures were doing in terms of writing electoral rules, what actually happened in the state congressional districts, the Republican victory in 1800 was so dramatic, basically they reversed a pretty lopsided margin in the House of Representatives, that’s the best index of where the American people were.”

“While the slavery factor is important, it’s not determinative or dispositive in the way professor Amar suggests,” he concluded.

Changing the Electoral College in favor of an election system that elects a president by popular vote has been discussed following President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in which he won the electoral but not the popular vote.

However, Gallup recently released a survey showing a historic spike in support for the Electoral College system Friday with 47 percent of those surveyed saying they want to keep the Electoral College.

“This year, for the first time in the 49 years Gallup has asked about it, less than half of Americans want to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system,” the polling group noted.

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