Failed political movements often return from the grave like zombies; bad ideas of fifty years ago appear again draped in different clothing. After being defeated decades ago, proponents of abolishing the Electoral College are yet again trying to replace it with a national popular vote. Reviewing past arguments against abolition shows why we still need the Electoral College. Much like mood rings and pet rocks, replacing the Electoral College is an idea best left in the 1970s.
Vernon Jordan, a prominent civil rights leader who was executive director of the National Urban League, wrote several articles defending the Electoral College and testified in front of Congress in 1979. He wrote in The Morning Call, “Take away the Electoral College and the importance of being black melts away. Blacks, instead of being crucial to victory in major states, simply become 10 percent of the electorate, with reduced impact.”
Even as population demographics shift, Jordan’s argument has stood the test of time. Abolishing the Electoral College would destroy the separation of powers the American Founders created and dilute minority voters. The current political map – made up of states – forces candidates to pay attention to Black and other minority voters while competing for the presidency.
What makes Jordan’s position unique is that he went against many prominent Democrat politicians, including Sen. Birch Bayh and Rep. John Conyers, who wanted to abolish the Electoral College. He did have the backing of many prominent black leaders from groups like the NAACP, and even Jesse Jackson agreed with Jordan’s argument though he has since changed his mind.
In his Congressional testimony, Jordan argued that the Electoral College divides power between big and small states. Because candidates must build a coalition that is diverse geographically, they also must build a coalition that is diverse in many other ways. Try to rely on any one demographic group or geographic region, and they can’t build a coalition big enough to win.
According to Jordan, swing states are often more diverse than the country as a whole, and candidates can’t overlook Black voters in those states. Ignoring 15% of the electorate in a closely divided race can guarantee a loss.
Forty years later, Jordan is still right, as swing states including Florida, Michigan and North Carolina have higher percentages of African Americans than the national average. President Obama generated massive Black turnout, thereby winning the presidency, while Hillary Clinton struggled to do the same and lost.
Black voters are only about 12.5 percent of the electorate, but they form an essential part of a winning coalition. As Jordan testified to Congress, “In the final analysis blacks success in Presidential politics is dependent upon their ability to leverage their minority votes and views into the will of the majority. Thus the real issue is not only one of how many black voters are located in which States but where blacks can reasonably expect to build coalitions with other minorities and whites to achieve true justice and equality.”
Eliminating the Electoral College would make forming broad coalitions less important, and we would drift toward extremism and even greater division. Candidates could play to sectional or racial interests and win the presidency by enflaming a narrow segment of the population. Preserving the Electoral College is a safeguard against splinter parties and regional candidates.
Jordan eloquently makes this case in the Atlanta Constitution. “The Electoral College system acts as a brake to extremism. It forces candidates not only to appeal to the widest consensus among voters and regions, but it forces them to appeal to minority interests as well. Direct election of the president would likely lead to fractured national politics, a decline in the role of the parties, and an erosion of even the limited political influence blacks have gained.”
As attacks on the Electoral College increase, it is instructive to look at Jordan’s argument. His testimony to Congress and his other writings are still relevant today. Abolishing the Electoral College would diminish the impact of Black voters and could further destabilize American politics.