When was the electoral college created? : Throughline What is it, why do we have it, and why hasn't it changed? Born from a rushed, fraught, imperfect process, the origins and evolution of the Electoral College might surprise you and make you think differently about not only this upcoming presidential election, but our democracy as a whole.

The Electoral College

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CAROL ANDERSON: So we're talking about this right to vote, this power to vote.

DAVID BLIGHT: If we didn't have this right to vote, they probably wouldn't be killing us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When a big landowner like George Washington offers you a rum toddy...

JILL LEPORE: It's a pretty good way to make money to just sell your vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...You're going to be sure you cast a vote for George Washington.

ANDERSON: When we have an electorate where it's only sopranos singing...

BLIGHT: Douglass says the United States now has a chance...

ANDERSON: ...That gets harsh on the ears after a quick minute.

BLIGHT: ...To create a Republic...

ANDERSON: When we have an electorate...

BLIGHT: ...With people from all corners of the world...

ANDERSON: ...That is made up of sopranos and altos...

BLIGHT: ...Of all colors, all religions and ethnicities.

ANDERSON: ...Baritones and basses and tenors, we get the richness of the sound.






ABDELFATAH: All right, so I wanted to ask you about voting.


ABDELFATAH: Yeah. And specifically, I want to ask you about the Electoral College.


ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).


This is Rund talking on the phone with her brother.

ABDELFATAH: Aymen Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: OK, some context - so for the past few months, the THROUGHLINE team has been really struggling with questions about American democracy and voting.

ABDELFATAH: Fundamental questions like, why do we vote the way we do? Why are some people kept from voting? And, of course, why do we have an Electoral College?

ARABLOUEI: So for the next three weeks, we're dedicating our show to answering these questions in a series we are calling (mis)Representative Democracy.


ABDELFATAH: How am I qualified to speak on voting?

ABDELFATAH: You're not.




ABDELFATAH: No, no, I'm joking, I'm joking. You're a voter. Of course you're qualified to speak on voting.

ABDELFATAH: Well, there's a lot of people who are voters. It doesn't make them qualified to speak on anything.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, but they're qualified to vote. So...

ARABLOUEI: So, yes, we are voters, and we should know. But this stuff is complicated, and we aren't really taught much about it in school, especially not the history.

ABDELFATAH: Most of us in the United States are raised to believe that our country is the most democratic on the planet; that the framers of the Constitution, in all their wisdom, created a perfect system that ensures citizens have a real say in who their leaders are; that voting is a right and part of our identity as Americans. But we found that when you start to investigate these beliefs through the lens of history, things start to get weird. Assumptions begin to crumble.

ARABLOUEI: But you also realize that even though our voting system can be quite flawed, it's also really important and a real privilege that carries with it real power. And this is especially true when it comes to the Electoral College.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, I was a political science major, so I hopefully know this (laughter). No, I do. So, yeah, I mean, the Electoral College - they actually are the ones who vote for president. They basically have representatives from every state. Each state has a certain number of delegates, and the delegates are supposed to vote in alignment with the popular vote of the state.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) You're doing a much better job than I expected.

ABDELFATAH: I was not clear. I was trailing off.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, you were rambled, but - so what I'm saying is that wasn't so bad.

ARABLOUEI: Actually, it was really close. So let's build off that and, to start, do a basic explanation of what the Electoral College is and does.

ABDELFATAH: All right. So as Aymen said - going to give you credit here, Aymen - every four years, each state nominates a set of electors to cast their votes for the president of the United States. In the vast majority of states, it's a winner-take-all system. This means that if the Republican candidate, for example, wins the popular vote of a state, then all the electors of that state vote for that Republican candidate.

ARABLOUEI: How many electors does each state get? You take the number of House of Representative members and senators for that state. You add that up, and that's the number of electoral votes they get. Now, remember; those numbers are mostly based on population. So Texas gets a lot more electoral votes than, say, Maryland.

ABDELFATAH: But this is also where things can get a little confusing because to try and keep things fair, the system is also set up to be proportional so that big states like Texas don't get all the power just because they happen to have more people, thus leaving smaller states like Maryland out in the cold. So basically, smaller states get a bigger say with the Electoral College than they would in a direct popular vote.

ARABLOUEI: What's the result of all of this? Well, sometimes a presidential candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College. This actually happened in 2000 and 2016. Also, we're alone in this. We are the only country in the world that elects our head of state in this way.


ABDELFATAH: So instead of a popular direct vote, our system essentially creates a kind of mini-Congress every four years that comes together to vote for president. And the candidate who gets the majority of electoral votes wins the election. Right now the number a candidate needs to win is 270 electoral votes.

ARABLOUEI: But how did our country come to have this complicated system? How did it start?

ABDELFATAH: And why do we still have it?


ARABLOUEI: Coming up in the first episode of our (mis)Representative Democracy series, we're going to tackle these questions. And prepare yourself because you might not like the answers.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.


CHRISTOPHER OGUDO: Hi. This is Christopher Ogudo (ph), and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. I love this show, and you should love it, too. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: Part 1 - Electoral College 1.0.


ARABLOUEI: In the summer of 1787, 55 white men representing nearly all the former American colonies of Great Britain gathered in Philadelphia, Pa. The youngest among them was 26 and the oldest 81. They gathered there to figure out how to hold the fragile, young country together. And what they came up with was the founding document of the newly independent United States, the Constitution.


ABDELFATAH: If you know anything about summer in Philadelphia, you know that it's hot - really hot, especially if you're wearing a powdered wig and weirdly thick colonial garments, which most of the delegates would have been wearing. But that wasn't the only reason they were sweating. They were also under a lot of pressure. The American colonies had fought a horrific and bloody Revolutionary War. By 1787, things were still shaky. The newly independent nation needed some kind of binding document, and they needed it ASAP.

ARABLOUEI: And they weren't working with much. There were almost no examples from history for how to draft a set of rules that would govern a country with no monarchy.


ABDELFATAH: And here's the thing. They weren't going to sit around in humid rooms writing this document for a few months, sign it and go back to their hometowns and chill. They were accountable. Whatever they came up with had to be approved.

AKHIL REED AMAR: They are only drafting a proposal. They can't announce and implement the Constitution. They're going to have to get it ratified by the states.

ABDELFATAH: This is...

AMAR: Akhil Reed Amar.

ABDELFATAH: He's a professor at Yale University's law school and author of "Law Of The Land: A Grand Tour Of Our Constitutional Republic." OK, so the states all have to approve the proposed Constitution.

AMAR: Now, that means we're going to need to get buy-in from people in big states and from people in small states, people in the South - slave states - and people in the North - free states.

ARABLOUEI: The American colonies had all evolved in completely different ways. They all had different interests, yet they all had a stake in the success of the union. So it wasn't going to be easy to agree on anything, especially on how to elect the country's chief executive or president.

AMAR: The presidency is perhaps the hardest nut to crack at Philadelphia, and it is because it's the thing that looks different than anything the world has seen.

ARABLOUEI: That is not an overstatement. There had never, ever been a position like president in world history.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As George Washington) It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle that the delegates from so many different states should unite in forming a system of national government so little liable to well-founded objections.

ARABLOUEI: It's hard to imagine today, but at that time, no one could have been sure the Constitution would work. Those words you just heard - that was George Washington. Even he was unsure the damn thing was going to work. That was the vibe.


ALEX KEYSSAR: Even at the outset, there was a lot of difficulty figuring out how to choose a chief executive.

ABDELFATAH: This is Alex Keyssar.

KEYSSAR: And I'm a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the name of my book is "Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?" The default position as the convention began was that Congress would choose the president.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, the legislature would just straight-up pick the president on behalf of the voters. Several delegations from states like New Jersey and Virginia proposed their own methods for doing this. And then they took the temperature of the room, tested the idea out with a straw poll.

KEYSSAR: Each time after they would have a straw vote, they began to back off. And people would criticize it and say, this is not a good idea. If Congress chooses the president, there is no separation of powers. The possibilities of corruption are enormous. Let's not do this. So then they would toss around other ideas.

ABDELFATAH: Other ideas like, maybe governors of each state could vote for the president, or a small appointed committee would select the president. These were quickly rejected, and then things got spicy. Someone proposed an idea that might seem obvious to us today. Each voter casts a ballot directly for the candidate they want. Whoever gets the most votes is president - a popular direct vote.

KEYSSAR: James Madison, the foremost thinker behind the Constitution, favored that. That seemed to him, in theory, to have the fewest risks and the most possible benefits.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As James Madison) The people at large was the fittest in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an executive magistrate of distinguished character.

KEYSSAR: There were a variety of objections. People thought that the country was simply too dispersed, and most people could not be familiar with the possible candidates.

AMAR: Even if we think ordinary people are good - ordinary voters - at picking members of the House of Representatives and good at picking their governors, that's because they know who's good in their locality, who's good in their state. But they might not know who's good halfway across the continent.

ABDELFATAH: In 1787, information moved slowly. The post office was just beginning, and it was difficult to really know politics beyond the local level. But, OK, let's be real here. That sounds a bit like an excuse, right? Maybe you're thinking the framers of the Constitution, as mostly landowning white men, might have thought it was dangerous to allow a direct election system.

KEYSSAR: I think that among the framers, there were numerous people who did distrust the people. There was unease about trusting things to people. At the same time, they felt that it should be a government of the people.

ABDELFATAH: As we'll see, the ideas behind the Constitution are riddled with contradictions.

KEYSSAR: The word democracy, as we know, in the late 18th century, was a word that had negative connotations. It had overtones of mob rule and chaos.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander Hamilton) It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

ABDELFATAH: These are the words of Alexander Hamilton, the most in vogue framer right now. He wasn't so excited about the idea of a direct popular vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander Hamilton) It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the president of the United States.

KEYSSAR: Yes, there is a distrust. My reading of the records is that distrust was not paramount, in part because the people was - you know, were a circumscribed group. People did not mean, you know, everybody, did not mean every male, et cetera. It likely meant, although it varied by state, property-owning or at least taxpaying adult white males.

ARABLOUEI: So even though the framers weren't fans of a direct popular vote, they did believe that people should choose their leaders through elections. They did believe in democracy. Yet, according to Akhil Amar, there was another major obstacle for the idea of people directly voting for president.

AMAR: In one word, slavery.


AMAR: The fundamental problem with direct election is the South will lose every time because a huge percentage of its population are enslaved people, and obviously, slaves won't be voting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As James Madison) The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the northern than the southern states, and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.

AMAR: And I'm not making that up. That's what James Madison from Virginia says behind closed doors at Philadelphia when James Wilson from Pennsylvania says, we should actually have a directly elected president. And Madison says, oh, I'm - in theory, I'm in favor of direct election. You're right, James Wilson. It's a really good system. But, you know, there's just one problem. I've been doing the math, and if we do it this way, the people in the South will lose every time. Now, I'm willing to make that sacrifice. But, of course, as soon as he says that, the cat is out of the bag. And everyone else in the South is saying, you might be willing to, but I'm not. And Madison maybe is counting on all of that because if you just have direct election, the South will lose every time. And that's going to be a deal-breaker possibly in the South.

KEYSSAR: Madison says, a national popular vote would disadvantage my region of the country.

ARABLOUEI: The way he saw it, a direct popular vote would threaten the economic interests of southern slaveholding states because, well, a big chunk of their population were enslaved people who weren't allowed to vote and didn't count towards their population numbers. And since they had a smaller number of eligible voters - basically landowning white men - than northern states, they'd pretty much always be at the mercy of those free states. And this is where the Three-Fifths Compromise comes in.

ABDELFATAH: Here's how it worked. In order to pad their population numbers, southern states wanted enslaved people in their states to count. Why? Well, because the bigger your state's population, the more money you'd receive from the federal budget and the more representation you'd get in Congress - more people, more money, more power.

ARABLOUEI: But the northern states were like, wait a minute. So you don't consider enslaved people to be humans because you treat them like chattel, but you want to count them toward your populations? That isn't going to work for us.

ABDELFATAH: And the southern states were basically like, well, we don't give a damn what works for you. If you want us to be part of the union, we're going to need our enslaved people counted.

ARABLOUEI: And so after a series of debates, northern delegates reached a deal with southerners. Enslaved people would count as three-fifths of a human being towards the population numbers.

ABDELFATAH: I know. It's really disturbing. OK, so back to the Constitutional Convention - many delegates from slaveholding states wanted that racialized population calculus carried over to electing the president. Direct popular vote wasn't going to work. Alex Keyssar says they needed some kind of representative body to elect the president, a kind of mini-Congress.

ARABLOUEI: But some northern states, like Massachusetts, opposed the compromise. So...

KEYSSAR: They went around and around through the summer. That's the basic story. And they could not agree.

ARABLOUEI: And on top of all that, the convention was running out of time.

KEYSSAR: They were starting to run up against a couple of different clocks. One was that they had more or less committed to coming out with a plan for this new Constitution and to get it ratified by the early fall. And then another very mundane but very real clock was that people were starting to get tired, you know, and maybe drifting off, going home, not staying there. And if you started to lose representation from a state or two, that could damage the whole effort of producing this new Constitution.

ARABLOUEI: So what did the delegates do when things got stressful and difficult? They took a break.

KEYSSAR: So what happened, you know, in effect, was that the convention decided on taking a vacation for a week and appointing a committee called the Committee on Postponed Parts to deal with various things they had not been able to resolve.

ARABLOUEI: So they basically just handed off the work of ironing out the details to an even smaller group of delegates.

ABDELFATAH: And they came up with a plan they thought could win enough support from both northern and southern states. They presented it, and after a few modifications, it was accepted by the convention. They didn't give it a name at the time, but it would come to be called the Electoral College. Akhil calls it Electoral College version...

AMAR: One-point-O (ph). That's the original system.

ARABLOUEI: And what it basically said was...

AMAR: We're not going to elect a president by direct popular vote. Instead, each state will be assigned a number of electors based on the number of seats that it has in the House of Representatives plus the number of seats it has in the Senate. What are electors? They're people that are picked to select the president. How are the electors themselves picked? Any way the state legislature chooses.

ARABLOUEI: Any way the state legislature chooses. This kind of ambiguity would come back to haunt the system later. Anyway, by the end of 1788, the Constitution was ratified. They'd done it. They'd created the world's first complete, codified national constitution.

ABDELFATAH: But wait. Let's stop and ask a few questions. When the framers made the deal to include the Electoral College in the Constitution, who ultimately benefited the most? Well, the answer is both states with small populations and the slave-owning states. As a result, a state like Virginia with a huge slave population gained advantages. Seven of the first 12 American presidents were from Virginia.

AMAR: The system is basically one that's going to give the slaveholding South a leg up and especially a big slaveholding state.

ANDERSON: The Electoral College is really about the fears of the southern states at the founding of this nation that the larger northern states would dominate.

ABDELFATAH: This is Carol Anderson. She's a...

ANDERSON: Professor of African American studies at Emory University.

ABDELFATAH: Carol says that ultimately, what the South wanted was...

ANDERSON: Safeguards. They wanted guardrails all the way through the Constitution that would protect slaveholder power.

ARABLOUEI: The Electoral College was a compromise. Like many things in the Constitution, it was created by imperfect people in a very imperfect situation. And from the records they left, it's pretty clear that most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention thought it was just the best they could do under the circumstances.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Alexander Hamilton) The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the president is pretty well-guarded. I venture somewhat further and hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.

ABDELFATAH: There are two pieces of evidence right there in the Constitution that confirm this. First, they included an amendment process so that the Constitution could be updated as needed. And second, they actually expected that the Electoral College would fail sometimes, as in no one candidate would get a majority of votes. So they created a failsafe where the House of Representatives would vote for president if that happened.

KEYSSAR: We tend to think of it as a kind of minor add-on, but it was a central part of the architecture that they created. And many of the framers believed that the president would not often be chosen by the Electoral College.

AMAR: I do think that the version that emerges from Philadelphia and is ratified up and down the continent is understood as 1.0. And in the very process of adopting the Constitution, ordinary people say, dudes, you made some mistakes. You forgot the rights, for example. The Constitution is crowdsourced.

KEYSSAR: Even as they concluded the Constitutional Convention, they were alluding to the fact that this was an experiment and that they did put an amendment process into the Constitution. And thus, what they had decided to do could be improved upon if necessary.

ANDERSON: What makes the document so fascinating is that it becomes part of the language of aspiration. So we know what the United States is, but in the Declaration of Independence, then in the Constitution, you have the aspirations for what the United States could be. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Well, if it's self-evident, son, here I am.


ARABLOUEI: Today, many people treat the Constitution and the Electoral College almost like scripture, like the original ideas contained in it are timeless, perfect for any era. But it's pretty clear that even the men who wrote it didn't see it that way. They had blind spots.

KEYSSAR: And a number of the framers, including James Madison, expressed serious regrets about what they had done, proposed changing it in a number of ways. And Madison himself commented that the presidential election system had been, to some extent, the product of haste and fatigue.

ABDELFATAH: And these are the limits of being a prisoner of the moment. The reality was that George Washington would not be president forever, and the United States would continue to grow. It would start to become a player in world events, and so elections would become more complicated and more dangerous. And the prediction of some framers that the Electoral College may not always work turned out to be prescient.


JESSICA GALLEGOS: Hi, friends. This is Jessica Gallegos (ph) from Phoenix, Ariz., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. To Rund and Ramtin and the whole THROUGHLINE team, thank you so much for the podcast. I was never a history person before, and now I can't get enough. And I'm a better person for it. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 2 - Things Fall Apart.


ABDELFATAH: Not long after the Constitution was written, the U.S. developed political parties. And they actually really influenced how we vote, which we'll get into in our next episode. For now, it's important to know that in 1800, the U.S. had two major political parties - the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.

ARABLOUEI: And they had some major differences. Let's start with the Federalists. They dominated American politics. President John Adams, America's second president, was a Federalist. And the Federalist Party, concentrated in the North, was the home of most slavery abolitionists. The Democratic-Republicans - the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both lifelong slave-owners - were primarily based in the South. Also, the country was on the brink of war with France, and both parties were calling each other traitors. This is from a Federalist Party election pamphlet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Reading) Let these men get into power. Put the reins of government into their hands. And what security have you against the occurrence of the scenes which have rendered France a cemetery and moistened her soil with the tears and blood of her inhabitants?

ARABLOUEI: And let's just say the Democratic-Republicans were not very fond of the Federalist government either. Here are some fighting words from Thomas Jefferson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Thomas Jefferson) Our general government has, in the rapid course of nine or 10 years, become more arbitrary and has swallowed more of the public liberty than even that of England.

ARABLOUEI: So with the country in the midst of an undeclared war with France and the political parties in an all-out battle, what happens? The 1800 presidential election. And, boy, was it a shitshow.


ABDELFATAH: It was a rematch of the 1796 race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Both sides tried to gain an advantage by messing with the internal election process of different states. Accusations and slander were fired back and forth from both sides. Still, they managed to have the election, and in December of 1800, the Electoral College met to cast their votes. But as soon as the votes were tallied up, there was a problem.

KEYSSAR: Every elector cast two electoral votes, and the design of the original constitution was whoever got the most electoral votes became president and whoever got the second most electoral votes became vice president.

ABDELFATAH: So in 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party had run Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice president. Their ticket won more electoral votes than the Federalist Party. But...

KEYSSAR: Burr and Jefferson, they each have majorities of the electoral votes.

ABDELFATAH: It's a tie. Each of them received 73 votes.

KEYSSAR: And that produces a truly anomalous situation. They both have majorities, so it goes to the House of Representatives.

ABDELFATAH: And just to complicate things further, the House of Representatives was dominated by the Federalist Party, whose candidate, John Adams, had just lost the election.

KEYSSAR: In effect, the decision about which Republican would become president was in the hands of the Federalists.

ABDELFATAH: The Federalists had to choose a president from the party they'd just spent the previous year basically calling traitors.

KEYSSAR: Which did not seem like a very good outcome of an institutional design.

ABDELFATAH: So, then, which poison to pick - Jefferson or Burr? And in a move that would impact American history as well as the box office sales of a certain future musical, Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist Party leader from New York, successfully lobbied his party to choose Thomas Jefferson.


ARABLOUEI: The framers actually despised the idea of political parties and so hadn't written any rules for a situation like this one, a situation where a president and vice president from the same ticket get the same amount of electoral votes. And in 1800, everyone realized that without a rule change to make electors select president and vice president separately, this situation could happen over and over again.

KEYSSAR: It's in the aftermath of that that what becomes the 12th Amendment is proposed and passed, which requires separate designations for president and vice president.

AMAR: One-point-O failed, and that's why it needed a software patch. And we get Electoral College 2.0, called the 12th Amendment, and that's actually the Electoral College system that we have today.

ABDELFATAH: So the 1.0 version of the Electoral College didn't require electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president. It was kind of a huge omission. So after the fiasco of the 1800 election, the 12th Amendment was passed. It required each member of the Electoral College to specifically put in one vote for president and another for vice president. This became Electoral College 2.0.

ARABLOUEI: At this point in the story, it might be tempting to say, hey; things worked as they should have. The Electoral College ran into a snag, and then it was amended. See? The system works. OK, on the surface, that is true. But it does leave out one major detail.

AMAR: In 1800, John Adams loses because Thomas Jefferson is getting extra credit, extra electoral votes because of slavery and Three-Fifths.

ARABLOUEI: Slavery and Three-Fifths. In other words, if the Three-Fifths Compromise wasn't a thing, then the Federalist Party - which, remember, had a lot of slavery abolitionists as members - would have won the election. The southern states benefited greatly from the Electoral College. It gave them a strategic advantage.

AMAR: And the sentence that appeared again and again in newspapers is, Mr. Jefferson is riding into the executive mansion - what we would call the White House - on the backs of his slaves.


ABDELFATAH: So according to Akhil, when the 12th Amendment was moving through Congress, many northern politicians advocated for just getting rid of the Electoral College altogether.

AMAR: Yankees say, as long as we're changing the system, let's do direct election. And Southerners say, no, thank you. We like the system the way it is, thank you. And that's when America owns the pro-slavery - and can't deny the pro-slavery aspects of the Electoral College - when they see it in operation, fix other glitches and don't fix this one.


ABDELFATAH: And even though there would be several failed efforts to change some aspects of the Electoral College in the decades after the 1800 election, the status quo pretty much remained the same. And this continued to work in the favor of southern states all the way until the time of Abraham Lincoln.

AMAR: The presidency is dominated by plantation-owning southern slaveholders.

ANDERSON: The South was very clear. We don't get what we want, you're on your own. You won't have a United States. They're holding the United States as this symbol hostage to slave power.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Starboard side, portside clear?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Clear.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Clear.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Ready? Fire.


ABDELFATAH: The tensions between the North and the South come to a head in the Civil War. And towards the end of the war, when it was clear the South would lose, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and effectively ending the Three-Fifths compromise.


AMAR: So the 13th Amendment is epic. It could only happen because of the Civil War, in which 180,000 Blacks in blue, Blacks in the Union army, are the margin of victory.


AMAR: And you might think that the people who did that would justifiably say, you know, we deserve a pat on the back - mission accomplished. And then there's this moment. It's the oh, crap moment because now we've got rid of slavery. So what happens to three-fifths? It becomes five-fifths because now technically everyone is free. Oh, so actually, the South is going to have more seats in the Electoral College than ever before, more seats in the House of Representatives. And they're not letting their people vote.

ABDELFATAH: Besides the brief period of Reconstruction, southern states systematically kept Black citizens from voting.

AMAR: We've gotten rid of slavery, and we've actually just made the former Confederacy more powerful politically than ever before. Oh, crap. What have we done?

KEYSSAR: Our system awards influence according to population, not according to participation. In this system, states are not at all penalized for engaging in voter suppression.

ABDELFATAH: So by suppressing Black voters, the southern states actually got a better deal when the Three-Fifths Compromise ended. And this impacted the presidency through the rest of the 1800s and even into the 20th century.


ARABLOUEI: The Electoral College was, from the beginning, a political deal, a deal that was designed to allow states with small populations to have more of a say in presidential elections and to ensure that southern slaveholding states felt protected. Yet today, many people argue that the dynamics of the Electoral College have changed, that actually, the Electoral College is accomplishing its goal of protecting small states. But according to Akhil Amar, that's not a completely accurate way of looking at it.

AMAR: America is not dividing big state versus small state. America today and for all of history has divided three ways, basically - North against South, cities against rural areas and coastal areas against the interior.


ABDELFATAH: And those dynamics will come back to haunt the Electoral College again more than a hundred years after the end of the Civil War.


MARY ELLEN DAVIS: Hi. My name is Mary Ellen Davis (ph). I'm from Ithaca, N.Y., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE. Thank you so much for this show. I look forward to it every single week. I just can't thank you guys enough for providing this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 3 - So Close, So Far.

ARABLOUEI: In the decades after the Civil War and well into the 20th century, hundreds of amendments were proposed to the Constitution to change the Electoral College. None of them really got that close to being passed - that is, until the presidential elections of 1968.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, it's midnight in the East. All we know right now about the presidential race is that it is very, very close. It may be the closest in our history.

ARABLOUEI: There were three candidates in the race - Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon, Democrat and current Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a third-party candidate named George Wallace.


GEORGE WALLACE: In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.


AMAR: Remember all the other things that are happening in the 1960s.

ABDELFATAH: There were sweeping changes happening everywhere in the country.

AMAR: We're getting rid of poll tax disenfranchisement, and we're adopting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

ABDELFATAH: Washington, D.C., a mostly Black city, joined the Electoral College and, for the first time, got to have a say in choosing the president...

AMAR: And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

ABDELFATAH: ...And the Immigration Rights Act of 1965.

AMAR: So America is in the middle of a second Reconstruction.

ABDELFATAH: And in the middle of all of this emerged George Wallace, that third-party party candidate who you heard a second ago say, segregation now. As you might have guessed, Wallace was a racist. His campaign centered on stirring up the fears of white voters all over the country.


WALLACE: The Congress of our country succumbed to the blackmail of a group of anarchists in the streets.

KEYSSAR: George Wallace mounts a campaign for president first within the Democratic Party and then as a third-party candidate. It looks like there is a very good chance that he will win enough states in order to prevent either Nixon or Humphrey from getting an Electoral College majority.


WALLACE: And I say to you that when the leaders of both national parties will succumb to a group of anarchists in the street, then I say neither one of these parties are fit to lead the American people during the next ensuing four years.


KEYSSAR: Wallace will end up either in the Electoral College or in Congress being the kingmaker. And in that role, he would basically trade the votes he controlled for a commitment to go slow or reverse things on civil rights and voting rights.

ARABLOUEI: Neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted that to happen, and they probably imagined a future where a third-party candidate like George Wallace could use the Electoral College system to wield this kind of power again and again.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Mr. Nixon is appearing in the doorway now, preceded by members of his staff and members of the Secret Service.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: At almost midday Eastern Time, NBC News projected Richard Nixon for the 37th president of the United States when it became evident he had tied Illinois. Final returns may well reveal that indeed it was Mayor Richard Daley's Illinois and Mayor Richard Daley's Chicago which averted a deadlock and a political Constitutional crisis of incredible proportions.

ABDELFATAH: So the election happens, and the political establishment's worst fears didn't come to pass. George Wallace didn't end up with enough electoral votes to send the presidential election to Congress to decide. Nixon won the Electoral College decisively, but the popular vote was a different story.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It was so close. It took forever, but he won it.

ARABLOUEI: Nixon won the popular vote by less than 1 percentage point.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It was, again, one of the closest elections in American history.

ABDELFATAH: So the electoral crisis was averted, but George Wallace's candidacy and the tight popular vote were enough to push Congress to consider an amendment to the Constitution that would essentially end the Electoral College.

ARABLOUEI: The momentum started to grow. The amendment gained bipartisan support, and a diverse list of organizations also started supporting it.

KEYSSAR: The United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO end up, you know, endorsing a national popular vote, and so does the American Bar Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

ARABLOUEI: Even President Nixon, albeit reluctantly, said he supported the amendment.

KEYSSAR: And in an extraordinary development, in September of 1969, a Constitutional amendment calling for ending the Electoral College and replacing it with a national popular vote is passed by the House of Representatives but with about an 82% favorable vote, far above the two-thirds that's needed for a Constitutional amendment.

ARABLOUEI: It moved through the House and to the Senate, where it still had a lot of momentum. But then it hit a wall...

KEYSSAR: It is stalled for a year...

ARABLOUEI: ...A big, racist wall.

KEYSSAR: ...By political events, all of which are linked to tensions about race and white supremacy.

ABDELFATAH: Southern states are once again concerned that without an Electoral College, they will lose power.

KEYSSAR: The chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate is James Eastland, who was a Mississippi planter and an ardent and determined and committed segregationist.

ABDELFATAH: He was a Southern Democrat.

KEYSSAR: And I think one has to understand, too, that it was an article of faith that the Electoral College was their last bulwark against predations of the North and the civil rights movement, that the Electoral College was a - it gave them a structure and influence in the presidential elections without which they would not be able to stop the liberalizing forces of the civil rights movement.

ABDELFATAH: The bill met delay after delay in the Senate, and, according to Alex Keyssar, eventually...

KEYSSAR: Led by Southern senators but helped by some very conservative Midwestern Republicans, the proposal is defeated by a filibuster. The advocates of Electoral College reform fell short of being able to break the filibuster.

ABDELFATAH: And that's where we are today. We still use Electoral College 2.0, the 12th Amendment version, the version passed after the 1800 election, the version where each elector has to vote for both president and vice president separately. But why?

ARABLOUEI: Well, Akhil Amar says there are actually some good reasons to keep the Electoral College.

AKHIL REED AMAD: It's just the system that we have, inertia. You try to change the system, and there are going to be unanticipated consequences. What are they going to be? We don't know precisely because they're unanticipated. Every reform will create some of its own issues.

ARABLOUEI: Issues that we don't tend to think about because of the Electoral College.

AMAD: I'll give you one illustration of an issue it creates. If we have direct election, we're going to have to have a national system of uniformity for voting. So suppose California says, we want to let 17-year-olds vote so there will be more Californians voting in the system. Well, Texas says, oh, well, if you're going to have more Californians voting, you know, we want to have a bigger clout in the system. So we're going to let 16-year-olds vote. We're going to have to have a national apparatus to monitor all of this.

ARABLOUEI: And then there's the problem of whether Americans trust the federal government to run an election in this way.

AMAD: Who's going to be in charge of all of this? Because if it's going to be an incumbent president in charge of a national election, does that make you nervous? The current system actually - in a whole bunch of states, it's actually the party that doesn't control the presidency that's in charge of the local election - let's say in Pennsylvania. So there are going to be issues if you think we should scrap the current system, and I acknowledge that.

ABDELFATAH: But look. We've had two recent elections where the president has won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. And the way things are now, a small group of swing states kind of decide each election, leaving a lot of people to wonder, does my vote even matter?

AMAD: Here's my best argument for why we should have reform - equality; one person, one vote. Each person's vote should count the same. Whether it's male or female, Black or white, Jew or gentile, gay or straight, northern or southern, coastal or interior, every vote should count the same as every other vote. One person, one vote is a powerful affirmation of equality.

ANDERSON: I would say that the reason that we still have it is because those who are tied to the traditions of a slaveholding past, to the traditions of the inordinate power of white supremacy and that couch this in the veneration of a Constitution that they don't want to be changed - that's why we still have it. It cloaks it in the language of patriotism and democracy when, in fact, what it does is it undermines it.

KEYSSAR: When I think about today, when I think about our living in an era of very contentious politics and serious partisan and social conflict - that we need to have an electoral system that is grounded in very widely accepted principles and that is transparent in its grounding and in its operation. And the Electoral College is not that.

ARABLOUEI: So that's where we are. We have a system that contradicts many of the basic values we hold to be true - that every vote matters, that our elections are transparent and clean and that each presidential election serves the will of the people.

ABDELFATAH: And the reality is it isn't some massive conspiracy why we don't have these things. It follows directly from the fact that the framers of our Constitution created a system that was most politically salient in a much different time. They were limited by their own shortcomings and context. They were flawed men who created a flawed election system.

ARABLOUEI: And it's broken down and malfunctioned many times. It's created power imbalances and helped keep inequality alive. It's complicated and murky. And if we go by the words of one of those flawed men who created it, Thomas Jefferson, it might be time for a change.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Thomas Jefferson) I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change. With a change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.


ARABLOUEI: On the next episode of (mis)Representative Democracy...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George Washington purchased 46 gallons of beer, one hogshead, one barrel and 10 bowls of rum punch.

ARABLOUEI: ...We discover how our country's voting process went from a public affair...

LEPORE: It's very Victorian - right? - the little curtains, the little table.

ABDELFATAH: To now a very private one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is something that he would do treating his neighbors at the time of the election.

LEPORE: It's constrained. It's quiet. The rowdy people can't even get near the polling place.

ABDELFATAH: Who gets a voice behind that curtain, and who is still fighting for one today?

ANDERSON: So we're talking about this right to vote, this power to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And they would then, he hoped, reciprocate by casting their vote for him.

ANDERSON: Part of what we understand in the ongoing battle to stop people from voting is the recognition of what that power means.

ARABLOUEI: How we vote and why that matters on the next episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...






ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Camille Smiley, Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann. And a special thank you to Austin Horn, Jamie York, Connor McCurry, Jess Berry, Dylan Hardy Dawson and Travis Lux for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: If you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or find us on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening, and remember to tune in next week for the second episode of our (mis)Representative Democracy series.

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