An Unwinnable Situation led to a Racist Electoral College

Image by Clay Banks.

In life people face many moral dilemmas. The challenge of making choices when different values are in competition is not easy.

It is easy to imagine this happening between parents in living rooms after children have gone to bed; one says, “we should invest in Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman because war is a growth industry” and the other says “I don’t want our retirement to be paid from the blood of innocent people.”

It is true, in many years so-called “defense contractors” are a good investment because of their long-term predictable government contracts, and it is also true that Lockheed Martin makes products like Hellfire missiles that kill innocent civilians, just like all weapons/ammunition contractors do.

In the example provided, there are solutions. One option is to find more ethical investment options, another is to change retirement plans to necessitate a need for less monetary accumulation to reach financial targets. Maybe another option would be committing to pressure defense contractors and legislators to end practices that kill innocent civilians or the abolition of war, since it threatens all human life.

Moral dilemmas are a type of conflict and parties have choices in how they choose (or not) to engage with them. Avoiding conflict is a choice, just like compromising, collaborating, competing, or accommodating are strategic options. No strategy is guaranteed to win, or achieve desired results, but strategic choices can have dramatic impacts on outcomes.

Unfortunately, sometimes in life we face dilemmas where winning is not obtainable. In popular culture this is sometimes referred to as Kobayashi Maru, a reference to a training exercise in Star Trek with a no-win scenario.

The creation of the US Constitution in some ways is a product of such dilemmas, the starkest being the existence of chattel slavery in some states. Slave states regarded Black people as property; states that had rejected slavery regarded Black people as…people, but even those states were willing to settle to form the first modern democracy with an actual constitution.

U.S. history as taught in some districts teaches about the 3/5ths Compromise as a great achievement. It was a solution between delegates from Northern and Southern states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787: slaves would be counted as 3/5ths of a person for determining taxation and representation in the House of Representatives. While one side held that slavery directly contradicted liberty, they also believed in limited government and property rights. The other side believed in racial prejudice—white supremacy—which thoroughly supported a slave-based agricultural system.

There was no winning. The parties (the North and South) were not going to change the minds of the other side. It is remarkable, and ugly, to read about this triumphant and appalling part of U.S. history. But a belief in the need for and a commitment to unity held the day. Of course, I have a biased take, as everyone does; either you think slavery is morally repugnant, or you do not. The Founders clearly concluded that no compromise means no Constitution.

The Electoral College was established to execute the compromise. There would not be a direct democracy for a number or reasons, the least of which being a negation to the principle: one person, one vote. Many people would be counted towards representation but without the privilege of casting a vote. The special electors would represent the population, and this would balance between the interests of the North and the South.

At that time, it was a balancing act. The issue of slavery was avoided or at least put on hold. Other concessions were written into the Constitution to prevent the abolition of the slave trade, but only for 20 years; James Madison wrote:

“It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination.”

The consequence was very real, the compromise gave the South extra representation in the House of Representatives, which also translated into extra votes in the Electoral College. Denying others the rights, benefits, and equality that you enjoy is prejudice. Prejudice based on race is racism.

The question is not purely historical, however. One can easily explain the racist roots; indeed the U.S. was built on the backs of slave labor. And one may also point to the Civil War and expansion of Civil Rights—steps to address the racist past. The Electoral College, however, still operates as a barrier toward the principle of “one person, one vote.”

In 2016, for example, Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents; votes from Wyoming carried 3.6 times more influence.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton had 2,864,974 votes more than Donald Trump, the largest popular vote margin of any losing presidential candidate in U.S. history, but the candidate endorsed by the KKK became President.

I say it’s time to move past the question; the equality of “one person, one vote” would avoid the questions created by a system where some votes count more than others.

I know the U.S. has a very hard time getting rid of racist antiques, artifacts, policies, and monuments. It is a moral dilemma, but I think this time it is winnable.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.