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.