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Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver's Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The current national reckoning on racial inequality is leading Americans to grapple with questions of systemic racism throughout many of the nation’s most long-standing institutions, whether policing, education or housing. One more disputed institution that Colorado voters will confront in the November election: the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is connected to slavery, according to experts and historians, via a Constitutional Convention compromise that allowed each slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of allotting membership to the U.S. House of Representatives, which in turn largely determined the number of electoral votes for each state. 

The legacy is reflected in modern times, some experts say, and it’s part of the debate on Proposition 113 — which asks whether Colorado should join a movement of states in electing the president by the national popular vote, circumventing the traditional Electoral College system. And it’s not the only relevant issue: Some say the disparate influence allotted to certain states over others disadvantages voters of color.

Gov. Jared Polis and the General Assembly added Colorado into the national popular vote compact in 2019, but critics gathered enough signatures to challenge the law on the November ballot. If the law stands, and if enough states join the compact, the winner of the national popular vote will receive Colorado’s nine electoral votes and win the presidency. 

The ballot measure raises a host of issues for voters to consider — many of them partisan — but the issue of race and the Electoral College is gaining increasing national attention this year. 

The groups on either side of the national popular vote in Colorado are not emphasizing the Electoral College’s racial implications, but it remains part of the discussion and a motivation for some voters.

NAACP Rocky Mountain President Rosemary Lytle said she thinks the current climate provides a chance to consider the implications of the Electoral College. The NAACP has said for over a decade that it supports a national popular vote system.

“I do believe that this examination of the Electoral College, and this push for a national popular vote, is part of the racial reckoning that is happening in this country and must happen in this country,” she said. 

Electoral power of racial minorities is shaped by geography

The Electoral College, which delegates approved in 1787 and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, gave each state a number of electors equal to the number of total members of Congress it has. For southern states, that meant counting the representatives whose allotment was determined by the racist three-fifths compromise.

But the fact that the system is tied to slavery, advocates and experts say, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s structurally racist today. However, its historical origins still influence the modern day vote.

“The fact that slavery and racism played a role in creating the system in 1787 does not mean the system is overtly racist today,” said Ben Waddell, a sociology professor who has studied the issue at Fort Lewis College in Durango. But, he added, “once you set up an institution it continues to carry a legacy, so that legacy of the three-fifths compromise continues to live within the Electoral College.”

That legacy is evident in the way the Constitution gives greater influence to rural states relative to their population by giving all states equal representation in the Senate. 

Because the Constitution gives every state two senators, rural states — which tend to be whiter — wind up with a greater representation in the Electoral College relative to the size of their population. Wyoming, where 580,000 people live, gets two senators. But so does California, home to 39.5 million people. A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight shows this effect gives rural areas an advantage in the Electoral College.

The intent of the current system wasn’t necessarily to disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities, experts say. But structural racism isn’t always about intent; it’s about impact. 

And that impact today, Waddell says, is structurally racist. People of color tend to live in urban areas, a result of racism in the past. Over the course of the 20th century, in what is known as the Great Migration, roughly 6 million Black Americans moved away from racism in the South to progressive urban areas in the North. The cities where they moved — places like Chicago, New York, Detroit and Cleveland — are now reliably blue. In this way, Black votes are largely packed into concentrated areas that are consistently Democratic, experts say.

“What we see today is a situation in which the majority of minorities are clustered in progressive spaces,” Waddell said. 

Colorado voters cast their primary election ballots in downtown Denver on June 30, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Both sides of the debate acknowledge the Electoral College dilutes the influence of urban areas. Whether or not they see that as a good thing is where the two campaigns differ. 

The backers of the Electoral College say the national popular vote would give urban areas too much power.

Proponents of the national popular vote argue the Electoral College distances democracy from the idea of one person one vote when Black votes are overwhelmed, for instance, by conservative white voters in southern states. Under a national popular vote, Black votes would count toward a broader national pool and carry greater impact.

But Jennifer Braceras, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said political minorities, including Black people, benefit from the coalition politics she said the Electoral College demands. 

Braceras, who opposes the national popular vote, said minority communities can activate within states and build political power under the Electoral College. She argues that’s a dynamic the national popular vote wouldn’t enable as effectively. “Blacks as a group can be much more influential within a state than they can nationwide, where they’re only 12% of the population,” she said.

Braceras and others argue that the voices of minority groups are amplified in battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where candidates court their votes. 

But others say that influence isn’t the same in states that are not battlegrounds for the White House.

“On the whole, I think there are more examples of (the Electoral College) working against the interests of people of color,” said Spencer Overton, an election law professor at the George Washington University Law School. 

An undercurrent in the campaign on Proposition 113

The argument that the Electoral College is structurally racist is not one the Colorado supporters of the national popular vote are keen to make prominent in the campaign.

“We have stayed away from making a judgment about that,” said state Sen. Mike Foote, a Democrat who is a lead proponent of the national popular vote law. “When you say something like the Electoral College is racist, suddenly it means that 50% of the people who are listening to you automatically turn you off. Any time you talk about something being racist, people go to their corners.”

But the context of the current system remains an undercurrent in the conversation. In a recent forum hosted by PBS 12, The Colorado Sun and CBS4 Denver, Foote said the system would benefit all voters — especially those in states outside traditional presidential swing states who don’t normally get their issues heard. 

He cited a study from Fair Vote, an organization that backs the electoral changes, that showed 69% of Black voters and 76% of Latino lived in states that didn’t get much attention during the 2016 election.

“Under a national popular vote, presidential candidates have to pay attention to all communities across the country in order to patch together their majority vote of the popular vote if they are to win,” Foote said. “So they have to speak to historically disadvantaged communities, for example, they have to campaign to those communities they can’t just take those votes for granted.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Frank McNulty, a former Republican state House speaker who opposes the new law, said the current system serves as “an important check against an aggregation of political power.”

“I think that’s an important point for those of us here in Colorado,” he added in a recent interview. “If you have big states with a lot of people making decisions — regardless of color, race, ethnicity — that causes Colorado to be shifted to the side.”

But Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a liberal organization focused on democracy reforms, said the Electoral College isn’t just about power — it’s about confidence. 

The winner of the popular vote has lost the Electoral College in two of the previous five presidential elections. The idea that a majority of voters don’t vote for the winner, she says, can undermine belief that the system is working, a sentiment that can be especially strong among people of color, whose votes have been intentionally suppressed for decades through poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow laws.

“That’s not good for our democracy and particularly people of color who have faced a long history of being very intentionally disenfranchised,” Gonzalez said. “Voter confidence in a system is particularly important.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner