Did Disenfranchisement Give the South an Electoral Advantage?

Did Disenfranchisement Give the South an Electoral Advantage?

There has been much recent discussion of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which boosted slaveholding states’ representation in the Electoral College by including for apportionment a population that received no benefits from government. Scholars have debated how this influenced national politics under slavery, but this conversation applies to the post-emancipation world as well.[1]

Let us start in 1860. With the three-fifths clause operating, the slaveholding states controlled 120 of 303 electoral votes (EV), or 40 percent. The free states desired a “0/5″ scenario, in which slaveholding states received no representation benefit for the enslaved population. In this case, the South would have controlled only 35 percent of all EV. In 1860, the three-fifths clause thus gave the South a substantial 5 percent bump.[2]

Under the South’s desired “5/5″ scenario — the one in which all slaves counted for representation — the South would have controlled 42 percent of all EV. That is a more modest bump of 2 percent (about 7 EV) over what it actually enjoyed under the 3/5 ratio.

Emancipation enhanced the South’s share of national power by propelling 3.9 million former slaves into the ranks of the population used as a basis for apportionment. With slavery gone, each former bondsperson would now be counted as a whole person rather than three-fifths of one. In principle, this was a “5/5″ scenario, in which all people (former slaves among them) were considered for purposes of representation.

In the 1872 election cycle, which was the first to rely on post-emancipation census figures, the South controlled 138 of 366 (38 percent) EV. Had former slaves not been included (a “0/5″ scenario), the South would have controlled only 90 of 319 (29 percent) EV. The emancipated freedpeople thus gave the South a 9 percent bump in representation in the Electoral College.

It was good that emancipation boosted Southern political power so long as those added to the apportionment population had access to the political process through the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship to African Americans, and the franchise to black men. But under the conditions of complete disfranchisement, which southern states came close to meeting around the turn of the 20th century, no African Americans received direct representation in Congress.[3] At that point, emancipation’s boost in Southern power worked (some might say ironically) against African Americans, who struggled against racist state regimes whose disproportionate strength in national government blacks’ presence was artificially inflating. Imagine trying to get federal anti-lynching legislation passed against Southern states that had worked to remove blacks from the voting population, and were stronger than they should have been because of it.

By 1900, African Americans were being largely expelled from the political process. Their concerns went unrepresented, and yet their numbers still boosted Southern representation in the Electoral College. Effectively, the country ran on the “5/5″ principle even though the reality was that close to “0/5″ of blacks could vote for their own representatives.

In slavery, this desire had resulted in the diminishment of Southern power. At the constitutional convention in 1787, representatives from northern states had bargained the South down to counting only 3/5 of each slave for representation. After the war, Republicans had sought to carry this principle into freedom by Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which provided for the diminishment of a state’s enumerated population in proportion to the proportion of voters it disenfranchised. That failed, though, as did the 15th Amendment’s voting protections, when the Supreme Court began (from the 1870s on) permitting ostensibly race-neutral but intentionally race-specific disfranchisement measures. This gave white supremacists the best of both worlds — they received the enhanced political power that went with a larger population, without the obligation to serve that population.

The numbers for 1900 bear this out. In the “5/5″ reality, the states that had held slaves in 1860 (“the South”) had 159 EV, or 35 percent of the total. Under a “0/5″ scenario, in which the South would lose representation for the blacks it refused to enfranchise, the South would have had only 112 EV, or 28 percent of a smaller House of Representatives.

Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The South thus gained a lot from disenfranchisement. At the turn of the century, its largely disenfranchised African Americans gave it a 7 percent bump in the Electoral College, which was even larger than the 4-5 percent bump the three-fifths clause usually gave under slavery. And, as before the war, this was a population included only to boost representation, for it could make virtually no claim on the political process at all.

The Electoral College has always provided the rule set for selecting the President of the United States. The framers of the Constitution hoped that this membrane between the voters and the office of President would insulate the electoral process from the “heats and ferments” of public opinion, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 68.[4] But the cost has been high, for anti-democratic politicians have always been willing to game the system. One might have thought that ending slavery would have ended the compromise embodied in the three-fifths clause — a system that John Quincy Adams came to call “morally and politically vicious.”[5] It was not to be. Of the many paradoxes to the “freedom” that followed slavery, one of the most neglected may be this: in the era of Jim Crow, ending slavery only made the white South stronger.

[1] “The Three-Fifths Clause,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/legal/docs2.html (accessed December 9, 2016). For recent discussion of the Electoral College, see for example, “Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College,” AAIHS, http://www.aaihs.org/slavery-democracy-and-the-racialized-roots-of-the-electoral-college/ (accessed November 14, 2016); “Is slavery the reason for the Electoral College?” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2016/11/22/why-was-the-electoral-college-created-slavery-orig.cnn (accessed November 22, 2016); “Yes, The Electoral College Really Is A Vestige Of Slavery. It’s Time To Get Rid Of It.” WGBH News, http://news.wgbh.org/2016/12/06/news/yes-electoral-college-really-vestige-slavery-its-time-get-rid-it (accessed December 6, 2016).

[2] All figures based on my analysis of data from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); “Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: the United States, 1790-1970 (ICPSR 3),” [Computer file] (Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 197?). A note of caution: there are many ways of building counterfactual scenarios with these numbers. I have made some plausible but not airtight assumptions, such as that the apportionment basis for each cycle would not change despite having fewer people in the apportionment population. Bottom line: republish these numbers at your own risk.

[3] Absolute disfranchisement was the goal, but it was rarely complete. I make no claims here about how many were actually disenfranchised. This is about hypothetical extremes.

[4] “Federalist No. 68,” The Avalon Project, accessed December 9, 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp.

[5] Josiah Quincy, Memoir of the Life of John Quincy Adams (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Co., 1860), 108-9.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

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