The Black Vote and the Electoral College
Peter Signorelli
December 7, 2000


Memo To: Cedric Muhammad
From: Peter Signorelli
Re: A Difference of Opinion

Dear Cedric:

It has been a long time since I have looked at the question of independent black political action, but back in my days of youthful zealotry I did support and work vigorously on behalf of the efforts of Milton Henry and the Freedom Now Party in Detroit during the early 1960s. At that time, I too shared your view of the two-party system as a vice rather than a virtue, and also thought the Electoral College narrowed voting options to an unacceptable choice between the so-called “lesser” of two evils. It is not any burned-out weary cynicism, though, that today drives me to agree with Jude Wanniski in his appreciation and defense of the Electoral College and with his belief that an independent black political party as advocated by you would be a serious step backward for the African-American community as well as the nation as a whole.

On an immediate level, look at Italy and its myriad parties today -- where for fifty-some years it was considered near miraculous if a government lasted more than a year -- for an example of the instability that accompanies a system of multiple parties. No less dramatic is Israel with its narrowly focused plethora of parties that always can throw the country into political crisis or keep it in inertia. Israel’s multi-party arrangement is akin to the 1960's term “relationship,” which simply meant you were cohabitating with someone until something better came along. Not much of a commitment, even less responsibility.

Imagine an independent black political party, competing alongside a Hispanic Party or two, a feminist party, a gay-lesbian party, a reform party, an anti-protectionist party, an organized labor party, a pro-growth capitalist party, an anti-capitalist party, a pro-life party, an abortion rights party, an Earth-in-the-Balance party, a tax-reform party, Christian or other religious parties, a youth party, a retirees party, an Asian-American party, a Native-American party, a states-rights party, an anti-affirmative action party, a white-pride party, etc., etc. It would mean the Balkanization of American politics, Cedric. By nature such an arrangement favors conflict over compromise, as each party acts only in its own self-interest.

Assuming there would be just one black qua political party, it might win, say, 10% of the vote nationally -- at best. But what it might win in the aggregate is far less than the power the African-American community currently has. In this election the African-American vote (setting aside all questions of voter “irregularities” in the urban centers) was the margin in many key states, decisive in securing large chunks of the electoral vote, turning out incumbent GOP senators, nearly taking back both houses of congress for the Democrats, and coming within a hair’s breadth of keeping a Democrat in the White House. You may lament the existence of the Electoral College as the reason why a Republican is going to be president even though he did not win the popular vote and was rejected overwhelmingly by black voters, but without the EC the aggregate vote of the African-American community would have had far less an impact on the outcome within each state where it commands significant numbers. Michigan, with its Republican governor, is a prime example of this, where the heavily-Democrat black vote was the key factor in Gore’s win and the defeat of an incumbent GOP Senator. The community’s concentrated vote would have been dissipated if cast nationally for a black candidate.

The Dewey-Truman race of 1948 is another striking example of the efficacy of the EC, and it contradicts your belief that the Electoral College’s “bias toward the two-party system makes it that much harder for a real black agenda to be addressed by the American political establishment.” Facing a revolt within his own party from the Southern Dixiecrats and a popular GOP presidential candidate, Harry Truman, in order to win the necessary electoral votes, was compelled to wage a broader, more inclusive campaign, building new national coalitions. The element on the margin was the black vote. He had to go after it to win. When he desegregated the Armed Forces, he received two-thirds of the black vote, although taking slightly less than 50% of the popular vote. It was the black vote on the margin in states such as Ohio and Illinois that gave him his electoral lead and made the difference.

Yes, the Electoral College does work to preserve the two-party system, because it is designed to compel the parties to govern by consensus, as well as ensure that the candidate elected also will have a nationally distributed popular vote -- a regional balance of support (although not necessarily an absolute majority) -- sufficient enough to be able to govern. However, we have seen instances when existing parties could not come to consensus on the direction for the country, and the electorate found a means to alter that situation. Lincoln’s Republican Party, after all, came into existence as a new party only one national election prior to his presidential victory. Most “third parties” though, are more accurately third forces, an organized political opposition that finds some acceptance because the consensus of the two parties is the establishment’s consensus, but not necessarily a consensus reflective of the governed. That was the situation with Ross Perot’s Reform Party, as well as other “third parties” in the past.

“Blacks,” you advise, “have only had a relationship with the Mommy Party in American politics while the Daddy Party has been missing in action.” This certainly is accurate today, although it was not until the second-term presidential campaign of Franklin Roosevelt at the depths of the Great Depression that the African-American community fully abandoned its strong, traditional attachment to the Republican Party and went over en masse to the Democrats. I also agree that there has not been a serious contest between the two parties for the African American vote on a national level. The old liberal, labor, black coalition still characterizes the makeup of the Democrat Party, but recall how closely Ronald Reagan came to breaking that up, when scores of blue-collar unionized workers left the Democrats to vote for him. Before President Bush reversed his “no-new-taxes” pledge, the number of African Americans moving toward the GOP was up. However, the GOP still is not trusted that the community, and will not be until it wages a serious campaign to go after the African-American vote. But abolishing the Electoral College in no way would end the political attachment of the black community to the Democrat Party. As you point out, there is a dependency of the community on Democrat largess at local, state and federal levels.

If we were to elect presidents by a majority of the popular vote, the current mess in Florida would be multiplied thousands of times We would be fighting over the totals in one precinct after another where the vote is close or irregularities appear. The EC may seem to contradict the notion of “one man, one vote,” but in our federal system, the Senate also contradicts that notion, as each state -- regardless of population -- has two U.S. Senators. But that arrangement is essential for preventing any tyranny of the majority, or the domination of rural America by urban American, or one regional voting bloc over another.

I think that in the early 1960s there was some utility in the threat of an emerging black nationalism that might seek an independent black political option outside the two parties. The African-American vote certainly was taken for granted, which is why the Democrat Party that the community supported also was the same virulently racist party of Bilbo, Rankin, Talmadge, et alia. There had been no black senators and precious few congressmen since those black Republicans from the days of Reconstruction. New York state, for example, had 41 congressmen in the 1960s, 19 from NYC itself, and Adam Clayton Powell was the sole black among them! There were no blacks among the delegations of the southern states to national political conventions.

I recall Malcolm X speaking at the Group on Advanced Leadership in Detroit, April 12, 1964, telling his audience that “Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that party can’t keep the promises that it made to you during election time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that political party, you’re not only a chump but you’re a traitor to your race.” That message made its way to the liberal and labor union leadership within the Democrat Party, which had to find a way to head off any independent black political action and to put an end to the effective political disenfranchisement of southern blacks. It was Malcolm X, and other black nationalists -- although still few and far between that early in the 1960s -- whose activity on behalf of independent black political action drove the northern Dems into motion.

Less than a year later, February 14, 1965, Malcolm X flew into Detroit after he and his family had just escaped that very morning from a firebombing of his house. He was a guest of attorney Milton Henry of the Freedom Now Party and spoke at Ford Auditorium. His message was quite different as the political struggle then was taking place at the southern voter registration centers and within the Democratic Party: “...our internal aim is to become immediately involved in a mass voter registration drive. But we don’t believe in voter registration without voter education....we will work with all others, even civil rights groups, who are dedicated to increase the number of Black registered voters in the South.” He added that he and his followers would defend “by any means necessary” the right of black citizens to register and vote in the south. After his death, there was a decline in efforts to form an independent black political party, a renewed surge of black Americans into the Democratic Party, and the adoption by the Republican Party of its deadly “southern strategy” in which it wrote off the black electorate.

If nothing else, the 2000 election ought to be an occasion for optimism for you, as it clearly demonstrates to the GOP how close it is to becoming a minority party nationally because of its self-imposed estrangement from the African-American community. Now, I believe, is hardly the time to chuck those institutions that will enable the black community and others to re-orient the GOP into a competition for its votes.

Peter Signorelli