Virtual Event: Alexander Keyssar
Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
in conversation with MILES RAPOPORT
July 31, 2020
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Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes ALEXANDER KEYSSAR—the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of the The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States—for a discussion of his latest book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? He will be joined in conversation by MILES RAPOPORT, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
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About Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
Every four years, millions of Americans wonder why they choose their presidents through the Electoral College, an arcane institution that permits the loser of the popular vote to become president and narrows campaigns to swing states. Most Americans have long preferred a national popular vote, and Congress has attempted on many occasions to alter or scuttle the Electoral College. Several of these efforts—one as recently as 1970—came very close to winning approval. Yet this controversial system remains.
Alexander Keyssar explains its persistence. After tracing the Electoral College’s tangled origins at the Constitutional Convention, he explores the efforts from 1800 to 2020 to abolish or significantly reform it, showing why each has failed. Reasons include the complexity of the electoral system’s design, the tendency of political parties to elevate partisan advantage above democratic values, the difficulty of passing constitutional amendments, and, importantly, the South’s prolonged backing of the Electoral College, grounded in its desire to preserve white supremacy in the region. The commonly voiced explanation that small states have blocked reform for fear of losing influence proves to have been true only occasionally.
Keyssar examines why reform of the Electoral College has received so little attention from Congress for the last forty years, and considers alternatives to congressional action such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and state efforts to eliminate winner-take-all. In analyzing the reasons for past failures while showing how close the nation has come to abolishing the institution, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? offers encouragement to those hoping to produce change in the twenty-first century.
Praise for Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
“Comprehensive and full of historical insight. Even specialists in political and constitutional history will encounter surprises . . . As another presidential election looms, [it] deserve[s] a wide readership.”―Eric Foner, London Review of Books
“America’s greatest historian of democracy now offers an extraordinary history of the most bizarre aspect of our representative democracy—the electoral college. In a clear and complete account of this anomaly’s origins and how it has survived, we can see the outlines for how it might be replaced, or at least improved upon. This is a brilliant contribution to a critical current debate, just in time to help guide effective reform.” —Lawrence Lessig, author of They Don’t Represent Us
“This is a powerful work twice over. Its contributions to the debate over the Electoral College’s effects on our politics are profound. No less important, though, are the fascinating accounts of the changing rules governing presidential elections since the nation’s founding, a turbulent and largely unknown history. Keyssar’s lucid scholarship does justice to the past while it forcefully informs the present.” —Sean Wilentz, author of No Property in Man
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