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How The Electoral College Came To Choose The President Of The U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A lot of things about President Trump's 2016 victory upset Democrats, but maybe the biggest is this. Hillary Clinton got more votes - nearly 3 million more - but those votes aren't how the United States picks its president - well, not exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA SEND YOUR VOTE TO COLLEGE")

JACK SHELDON AND SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK: (Chanting) E-L-E-C-T-O-R-A-L.

CHANG: Reach back into the middle-school civics part of your brain and you will remember that the Electoral College chooses the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GONNA SEND YOUR VOTE TO COLLEGE")

JACK SHELDON AND SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK: (Singing) When you pull down on my levers for the person of your choice, you're also choosing state electors, who will have the final voice.

CHANG: Each state gets one elector for each member of Congress - that's House members and senators. And in most states, they all go to whoever won the popular vote in that state. Then those electors get together in December, and they actually vote for the president. This year, there's again a chance that Trump could lose the popular vote but win the presidency.

Why do we do it this way? Well, it all goes back to 1787, the Constitutional Convention - you know, Philadelphia. That is where NPR's Ramtin Arablouei...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: That's me.

CHANG: ...And Rund Abdelfatah...

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Hi. That's me.

CHANG: ...Went back to look at how we landed on this complicated system and how it's persisted.

ARABLOUEI: So the framers of the Constitution spent a lot of time debating this question - how should the president be chosen?

AKHIL REED AMAR: The presidency is perhaps the hardest nut to crack at Philadelphia.

ARABLOUEI: That's Akhil Reed Amar, a professor at Yale University Law School and author of "Law Of The Land: A Grand Tour Of Our Constitutional Republic."

ABDELFATAH: And while a direct popular vote might seem like an obvious solution, at the time, there were a bunch of objections. Some just thought you couldn't trust the people at large with a choice so important.

ARABLOUEI: The people should be in air quotes here because, really, only white landowning men were allowed to vote.

ABDELFATAH: Others argued that because different states had different population sizes, it wouldn't be fair to let big states have all the say.

ARABLOUEI: The other big obstacle to a popular vote for president...

AMAR: In one word, slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMAR: The fundamental problem with direct election is the South will lose every time because a huge percentage of its population are enslaved people, and obviously, slaves won't be voting.

ARABLOUEI: And this is where the three-fifths compromise comes in.

ABDELFATAH: Here's how it worked. In order to pad their population numbers, Southern states wanted enslaved people in their states to count. Why? Well, because the bigger your state's population, the more money you'd receive from the federal budget and the more representation you'd get in Congress - more people, more money, more power.

ARABLOUEI: But the Northern states were, like, wait a minute. So you don't consider enslaved people to be humans because you treat them like chattel, but you want to count them toward your populations? That isn't going to work for us.

ABDELFATAH: And the Southern states were basically, like, well, we don't give a damn what works for you. If you want us to be part of the union, we're going to need our enslaved people counted.

ARABLOUEI: And so after a series of debates, Northern delegates reached a deal with Southerners. Enslaved people would count as three-fifths of a human being towards the population numbers.

ABDELFATAH: I know - it's really disturbing.

OK, so back to the Constitutional Convention. Many delegates from slaveholding states wanted that racialized population calculus carried over to electing the president. Direct popular vote wasn't going to work. Instead, they landed on a plan for a representative body to elect the president, a kind of mini-Congress. They didn't give it a name at the time, but it would come to be called the Electoral College.

AMAR: We're not going to elect a president by direct popular vote. Instead, each state will be assigned a number of electors based on the number of seats that it has in the House of Representatives plus the number of seats it has in the Senate.

ABDELFATAH: That meant Southern states, with their huge enslaved populations and the representatives that went with them, locked in an advantage.

CAROL ANDERSON: The Electoral College is really about the fears of the Southern states at the founding of this nation that the larger Northern states would dominate.

ABDELFATAH: This is Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University.

ANDERSON: They wanted guardrails all the way through the Constitution that would protect slaveholder power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: The Electoral College outlasted slavery. After the Civil War, three-fifths became five-fifths. The Southern states gained even more electoral clout, even though they systematically kept Black citizens from voting. Over the years, hundreds of amendments were proposed to change the Electoral College. None of them really got that close to being passed - that is, until the presidential election of 1968.

There were three candidates in the race - Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon, Democrat and current Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a third-party candidate named George Wallace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

ABDELFATAH: His campaign centered on stirring up the fears of white voters all over the country.

ALEX KEYSSAR: It looks like there's a very good chance that he will win enough states in order to prevent either Nixon or Humphrey from getting an Electoral College majority.

ABDELFATAH: That's Alex Keyssar, a Harvard professor and author of "Why Do We Still Have The Electoral College?"

KEYSSAR: He would basically trade the votes he controlled for a commitment to go slow or reverse things on civil rights and voting rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At almost midday Eastern Time, NBC News projected Richard Nixon the 37th president of the United States when it became evident he had carried Illinois. Final returns...

ABDELFATAH: So the election happens, and the political establishment's worst fears didn't come to pass. Nixon won the Electoral College decisively. But George Wallace's candidacy and the tight popular vote were enough to push Congress to consider an amendment to the Constitution that would essentially end the Electoral College.

KEYSSAR: In an extraordinary development, in September of 1969, a constitutional amendment calling for ending the Electoral College, replacing it with the national popular vote, is passed by the House of Representatives.

ARABLOUEI: But then it hit a wall.

KEYSSAR: The chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate is James Eastland, an ardent and determined and committed segregationist.

ABDELFATAH: He was a Southern Democrat.

KEYSSAR: And I think one has to understand, too, that it was an article of faith that the Electoral College gave them a structure and influence in the presidential elections without which they would not be able to stop the liberalizing forces of the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: The proposal is defeated by filibuster. The Electoral College survives.

ABDELFATAH: So next week, a system designed in part to placate slaveholding states, which survived in part thanks to segregationists, will still be how America picks its president.

CHANG: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's podcast Throughline. You can hear their series (mis)Representative Democracy wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.