Kevin Cooper Original View From Death Row

The Electoral College Must Go

It's long since time to end this legacy of slavery and racism which insures some votes are worth far more than others.
George Washington gives his first inugural speech in the old city hall, New York, after being made president by the state electors in April 1789. Painted by T.H. Matteson; engraved on steel by H.S. Sadd.

By Kevin Cooper / Original to Scheerpost

DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON — Ain’t it a bitch! It was stunning to see such a sorry spectacle at the Capitol. We can’t be too surprised, though, to see how differently violent white rioters are treated by law enforcement (one cop even wore a MAGA hat!) than peaceful Black protesters have been, historically and even recently. The drama does at least provide an opportunity to force examination of another remnant of racist history that should expire: the Electoral College.  

I know that times have changed. The late Congressman John Lewis stated as much while he was still alive and fighting to make sure that blights on this country like voter suppression, police brutality and overall racism did not regress to what they were when he was growing up in the South.

And, yes, I do understand that some things have gotten better over time. For example, there is now a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of California, marijuana is legal in many states and gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry. There are now more women, people of color, gays, lesbians and transgender people serving in public office. The U.S. House of Representatives is more diverse than it has ever been in the history of this country, and the traditionally Republican states of Georgia and Arizona just helped elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president, and Georgia will soon be represented by two Democrats in the Senate — one of whom will be the first African-American to represent Georgia in that role and only the 11th Black senator in 244 years of U.S. politics. 

However, when it comes to certain aspects of politics, change doesn’t seem to be happening as much or as fast, if at all. This is especially true when it comes to the historical slave-era anachronism called the Electoral College. Voter disenfranchisement and suppression, racism, false claims of illegal ballots and illegal votes being cast and cheating in various forms are plainly evident in the political area in this divided country. Why? Because all these have to do with political power, which political party runs and controls every aspect of life in this country, from politically appointed judges, to the very purse strings that financially support everything from education and infrastructure to relief from this once-a-century pandemic.

The only reason certain changes have happened is because of the grassroots efforts of everyday people. They made this country change through their hard work, their organizing, their marches and protests and not taking “no” for an answer. Many did that and were beaten, and in some cases murdered, by either the powers that be or their supporters for doing what the late John Lewis did: getting into “good trouble.”

Now it’s time for this new generation of people, as well as people from previous generations, to join together to make the still needed changes in this country that include passing the Equal Rights Amendment and ending the Electoral College. Here in 2021, with this country’s ever-growing diverse population, there is no longer a need for the Electoral College, created in the 18th century and amended in the 19th. While certain people want it to stay in effect so they can win the presidency without winning the majority vote of the people, this country doesn’t need it and would be better off without it. 

While it will not be easy to eliminate, this country must start to think about it seriously if they want to avoid the continued decline in credibility of our democracy. How damaging is it to that faith when a presidential candidate leads by millions of total votes, as Hillary Clinton did against Donald Trump in 2016, and yet does not receive the majority of Electoral College votes? We should move to direct popular vote system of presidential election.

This distortion of the alleged intent of the system can happen because every state’s Electoral College vote total is based not on the number of people who vote, but rather on the overall population of the state (represented approximately by the number of House of Representatives seats they have) plus two (the number of senators). Since there are a number of very low-population states, what could be a marginal boost (the bonus two) ends up being huge statistically for states like Wyoming, where a vote is worth three times that of a California voter. Further disrupting the equality for voters is that if your state has high voter turnout compared to its population, the weight of each vote is further shrunken — Colorado (5.7 million) and South Carolina (5.1 million) have roughly the same population yet a Coloradan’s vote had nearly 30 percent less weight than the South Carolinian voter in 2016.

And most importantly, this system also makes the votes of those in “swing states” much more valuable than those that live in heavily “blue” or “red” states, which is a major form of disenfranchisement — particularly for African Americans in the South:

“Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably red in recent presidential elections. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. It’s the precise reason for the success of the southern strategy. It’s precisely how, as Buckley might say, the South has prevailed.”

Wilfred Codrington writing in The Atlantic in 2019 

Each election, about four-fifths of the states are noncompetitive; for example, here in California, where Democrats are now dominant, the Republican votes for president are essentially “thrown away” while the Democrat votes are taken for granted, with the general election presidential candidates only coming to the most populous state to raise money from the wealthy rather than convince voters they are the best choice. 

This affects the shaping of the political platforms of each party and which candidates make it through the primaries to represent the party.  While the swing states change over time — welcome Arizona and Georgia — three-quarters of Americans live in states almost completely ignored by presidential candidates. 

Keeping the Electoral College is like staying in yesteryear, relying on an outdated artifact maintained through inertia and the help of certain people and organizations that want to take us backward and not forward in this country. Sure, it has been the law for a long time, but laws can be changed, even the Constitution — just as has been done with formerly accepted aspects of life that were to the detriment of certain citizens of this country, most notably chattel slavery, denying women the right to vote, and child labor, to give a few examples. Any law can be changed, even the Electoral College, even if it will not be easy to do. But ending chattel slavery wasn’t easy, nor getting women the right to vote, or gaining any other rights worth having that were denied to the oppressed.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was aimed at ending insidious voter suppression of Black people in the South. But a disastrous ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 aided much of the voter suppression we see today, when a 5-4 Republican-Democrat majority in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, gutted the historic Voting Rights Act by relieving the Southern states of federal oversight of their election laws.

For people who do not know the history of voting in this country, when it comes to non-white people, especially Black people, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into being after then Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law. He did so because of the historic proven voter discrimination, voter suppression, voter murder(s), literacy tests, jellybean counting, poll taxes, scare tactics, grandfather clauses and all other forms of Black voter intimidation in ex-slave holding states in the South by certain white people, even though black people were first given the right to vote in 1870 when the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

Just last month, voter advocates in Georgia filed a lawsuit  charging that 198,000 voters — young, people of color and low-income — were removed from the voting rolls in 2019, again falsely claiming they had all moved.

The five conservative justices who derailed the 1965 Voting Rights Act said it had been passed to address racial discrimination that, 48 years later, was no longer much of a problem! In other words, “times have changed.” They determined that the country “has changed,” that “[r]egardless of how to look at the record, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced Congress in 1965.” 

In what universe? Ask the 340,134 voters in Georgia in 2018, many of them Black, who had been purged from the voting rolls for having allegedly moved, when they were still living at the same address as where they were registered, making them unable to vote in the 2018 election. Who purged them? Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a white Republican running for governor in that same election against Stacey Abrams, a popular Black leader in the state legislature. He won by 54,700 votes. Was that not “rampant discrimination?” Just last month, voter advocates in Georgia filed a lawsuit  charging that 198,000 voters — young, people of color and low-income — were removed from the voting rolls in 2019, again falsely claiming they had all moved. 

If certain people and organizations can’t find one way to keep Black people from voting, then they find another way to do it. Closing down polling places in Black neighborhoods, imposing voter ID laws, and gerrymandering — redrawing district lines to favor candidates of a particular party — are being used to this day to stop Black people from voting or reducing the power of their vote because certain white people fear that if enough Black people cast their vote, white people will lose privilege and power. This country cannot have it both ways, that on one hand that is no longer much of a problem, and on the other hand allow the racism that elevates white people can still be used! 

The Supreme Court excused gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act by saying times have changed for the better, but their ruling now allows those same Southern and ex-slave states that historically disenfranchised Black people to continue to do so. Times have changed, but history is repeating itself. For example, in 2000 in the state of Florida, during the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, Black people who had voted had untold numbers of their votes destroyed, and many other Black voters were barred from voting for various reasons. This also helped hand the presidency to Bush — that and hanging chads.  

It is worth noting that Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in 2013 eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, had worked on Bush’s legal team in Florida in 2000, as did Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. That’s when the high court intervened and stopped the ballot recount in that state when Bush was ahead by only 537 votes. Although Gore got 550,000 more popular votes nationally, the 25 Electoral College votes from Florida handed the election, and presidency, to Bush. Where does democracy fit into this picture? It doesn’t.  

All of this voter suppression in these divided states of America is an ongoing stain on our history. This historical racism dates back to the creation of the Electoral College, and it hasn’t stopped. It is just like a chameleon, the small lizard whose skin changes colors, this is how racist and political opponents operate and change their tactics of voter suppression, even using felony convictions or arrest records or court fines to disenfranchise people. 

If it’s true what the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 concerning the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that racial discrimination is no longer much of a problem, that “times have changed,” then the same has to be true about the Electoral College, which came into being in the 18th century. It was born when the Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution and were torn between having the president chosen by popular vote or members of Congress. One reason they hesitated about the popular votes was that they believed citizens of the states would not be able to learn enough about the candidates to vote intelligently.  

They finally compromised on a system of electors chosen by the states after a divisive debate over how to count the population to see how many electors each state would have. The Northern “free” states had larger populations than Southern slave states, in part because slaves were considered property, not human beings, and therefore could not be counted in the population. The slave states were crying out that the North would win every presidential election due to the imbalance of the voter population, so in order to appease the South, those states were allowed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person to take away the population advantage of the north.

The southerners did not want to count a slave as a whole human being because if they did, it would go against their historical lies that slaves weren’t fully human beings, and that they as slave owners were not in fact enslaving human beings. If they said in any way, shape or form that enslaved Africans and black Americans were in fact whole human beings, this would undercut their long-held argument and belief that they weren’t, so they settled for the bizarre partial-person compromise.

The Electoral College today has 538 electors, totaling the number of senators and representatives from each state. Then, as now, it is only to choose the president. Nobody in Congress is chosen by the Electoral College. No other electoral contest in the United States is determined by any “electors” other than the citizens who vote in regular elections, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. That is democracy.  

Democrats have won the popular vote five out of the last eight presidential elections and twice were denied the office due to fewer electoral votes despite more popular votes. Maybe that is why more Republicans want to keep the Electoral College than anyone else. Fully 58% of Americans in March 2020 wanted to amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College; 81 percent of Democrats/leaning Democrat want the voters to choose the president; only 32 percent of Republicans/leaning Republican want that. 

This makes no sense, especially since times have changed, and African Americans are no longer considered three-fifths of a human being . . . well at least by most people we aren’t.

Here in 2020 and beyond, there is no way to honestly think about the Electoral College logically as preserving or advancing democracy. It only makes sense to think of it historically as a remnant of a bygone era when Black people were determined to be three-fifths of a human being, and the excuse that Americans cannot learn enough about the candidates has been buried by the massive saturation of print, broadcast, internet and social media that exists.

Democracy is about one person one vote. That is what the popular vote is. The Electoral College is not about one person one vote. It is in fact the only way that the loser of the popular vote who was not chosen by the majority of the American voters, can win the presidential election. One person, one vote is democracy plain and simple. The Electoral College must go. It’s a relic, a thing of the past, it does not belong in a real democracy. If the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed, then the Electoral College is most definitely no longer needed.

If it’s true that in the presidential election of 1800-01 that Thomas Jefferson metaphorically rode into the White House on the backs of slaves with the Electoral College vote, then here in 2020 and in the future, whoever rides into the White House must metaphorically do so on the shoulders of the majority of the American voters, the free people who make the popular vote. 

There is no more going back, no more of the same old same old. It’s a new day, a new time, the future is ahead of us, and we can no longer afford as a free country to retain practices from the past that were not made to help all of us but created to help a certain few in order to oppress others. The Constitution is a living document, just as we are living people. We must stop using and misusing old laws from yesteryear in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

I know that hypocrisy runs rampant in this country, so it’s going to take all of us who honestly believe in one person one vote and real democracy to make all the people in power in this country start to make this country what those so-called Founding Fathers said it could be when they put pen to paper and wrote it down. 

Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper

In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized in a June 17, 2017, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof and by 48 Hours, March 21, 2020  Visit and for more information. 

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