The 3/5 Compromise, Fractions and the Electoral College
What I remember most about the 3/5th compromise, from my American History lesson in the eleventh grade, was that slaves were counted as a fraction of one person. Sure, I probably learned there were other nuances at play during that historic compromise, specifically, the amount of representation in the House of Representatives for the South versus the North. But in retrospect, I recall that all of those facts and political machinations eclipsed the realization that slaves were considered fractions of a whole human being. To a young woman learning this history for the first time, I recall that the emotions elicited in me were a mixture of sadness and disbelief, followed by acute relief that at least now, things were so much better in our nation. Indeed, slavery was but a history lesson and all of us were now equal, whole human beings in the eyes of the United States Constitution. I took solace in the fact that we were all whole individuals and none of us were fractions any longer…
Fast forward thirty years to my life today and I have been thinking much more about fractions both personally and professionally. Our daughters have learned about fractions in their fifth grade classes, and for whatever reason, mastering fractions has been an elusive task for them, resulting in many late night homework sessions on the topic, complete with analogies about cake and pizza slices. Professionally, as a researcher in Epidemiology, I deal with fractions daily. My field compares rates of disease, with and without the presence of specific risk factors. The rates of disease are at their essence, fractions with very carefully estimated numerators and denominators.
I voted for Hillary Clinton last election, and like the majority of those who voted in this country in 2016, I was deeply disappointed and have been at times in disbelief with the outcome of that election. As I noticed the popular vote soaring to margins higher than the total margins won by former elected Presidents (i.e. Carter), I began to question the value and the relevance of electoral college system altogether. Perhaps it is my faint memory of the 3/5th compromise, and the prominent role of fractions in my life, that keeps drawing my mind to the fact that as a voter in California, with our large electorate and relatively small number of electors, I and my vote are counted much as slaves were counted until the 13th amendment: as a fraction of a whole person. In order to estimate exactly what fraction that I and other California voters represent of a whole person in the eyes our democracy, we can assume that the most “whole person”, lives in Wyoming, where the ratio of eligible voters to electoral college votes is the smallest of all of the 50 states (142,741 per single elector). If we divide this number by California’s ratio of eligible voters to electors (508,344) then the result is sobering. In terms of our votes, we Californians are considered 0.28, or less than 1/3rd of a person. The simple math that I am happy to report my daughters can now help me with, show us that individual voters in every other state besides Wyoming contribute some smaller than one fraction of their vote to a presidential election. This seems not only odd, but also at odds with the tenets of a true democracy, where all individuals, regardless of where they reside, should have equal status and representation under the law. Anything less, brings us back to a darker chapter of our history, when we placed numeric values on the worth of human beings, relegating slaves to 3/5th’s of everyone else. In 2020, this issue has been further punctuated. Joe Biden has won the popular vote by 5.7 million plus votes and as we await “electoral college certification”, we are still hemming and hawing about who won the election. We should do away with the electoral college system and each individual voter, regardless of which state they reside in, should be able to cast one whole and perfect vote to the woman or man that they feel deserves to be their President.