Recently Noted – Eric Foner on the Electoral College, presidential elections…..

The May 21, 2020 Issue of the London Review of Books contains a review article, “The Corrupt Bargain” by Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner1. It is a wonderful review of the history of this peculiar institution, The Electoral College. In the midst of his survey of the history of the electoral college system he notes:

A candidate can carry a dozen or so large states by small margins and capture the presidency while trailing far behind in the popular vote. This is what happened in the momentous four-candidate election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln received virtually no popular votes in the slave states and only 40 per cent nationally. But by carrying the entire North, he captured an electoral vote majority. Indeed, if the popular votes of the other candidates had been combined and given to one of them, Lincoln would still have become president even though 60 per cent of the electorate opposed him.

Foner also reviews many other historical events involving the electoral college system as well as proposals to reform or eliminate it.

He ends his essay on this note:

As another presidential election looms, these books deserve a wide readership. But the electoral college is only one symptom of a far deeper problem. American democracy is sick in ways that go well beyond the way the president is chosen. The symptoms include widespread efforts in Republican states to suppress the right to vote and to rig elections, employing such tactics as onerous identification requirements, partisan gerrymandering and the removal of many thousands of citizens from the voting rolls for trivial reasons. A partisan Supreme Court, in addition, has allowed unlimited corporate spending on campaigns and abrogated key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which restored black suffrage in the South. These problems will not be solved by allowing the people to elect the president, but that would be a valuable first step. Rooted in distrust of ordinary citizens and, like so many other features of American life, in the institution of slavery, the electoral college is a relic of a past the United States should have abandoned long ago.


  1. more about Foner here: