Toggle Menu

The Votes of Black Americans Should Count Twice

Vote reparations would empower us to replace oppressive institutions with life-affirming structures of equality.

By Brandon Hasbrouck

December 17, 2020

Voters fill out vote-by-mail ballots at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in October of 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto / Getty)

Black votes in this country are worth less than white votes. Joe Biden won the Electoral College because Black voters in Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia turned out in significant numbers. But even with overwhelming Black support—94 percent of Detroit voted for Biden!—the outcomes in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were worryingly close.

The Argument is a column where writers and thinkers propose a provocative idea that may not be politically realizable in the short term but that pushes one to think broader about a pressing issue of public importance.

One core problem is the Electoral College. Wyoming, which has just 580,000 residents and is 93 percent white, gets three electors because of its two senators and one representative in the House. By comparison, Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District—which includes Atlanta, has 710,000 residents, and is 58 percent Black—has no dedicated electors or senators and can only occasionally overcome the mostly white and conservative votes from elsewhere in the state. This devaluation of Black votes allows our political system to ignore Black lives, and the consequences are devastating. Unequal representation has led to unequal health care outcomes, which the Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened. Without sufficient voting power, Black communities receive substandard education, and politicians are free to appoint judges who sanction mass incarceration, abusive policing, and electoral disenfranchisement.

This is all by design. The Constitution’s framers set up the Electoral College to protect the interests of slave states. Along with the Senate, the Electoral College was critical in the endurance of slavery and its continuation by other means. Abolishing this system would mean that ballots cast by Black voters—or any voters, for that matter—would count the same.

But there’s another way to undo the damage of the Electoral College and other structurally racist political institutions: We can implement vote reparations by double-counting ballots cast by all Black residents. The poisonous legacy of slavery applies to Black people regardless of when we or our ancestors arrived in this country. Vote reparations should also extend to Native Americans. Slavery is rightly called America’s original sin, but so too was the United States’ genocidal seizure of land from its original inhabitants. Various legal forms of disenfranchisement have applied to them. It wasn’t until 1962 that all Native Americans were allowed to vote, and even then they faced—and still face—electoral obstacles. These are not the only examples of American oppression; we should include in vote reparations others who have suffered similar disenfranchisement.

Current Issue

View our current issue

Subscribe today and Save up to $129.

One of the largest objections to monetary reparations is the impracticality of implementing them on a scale that would meaningfully address the injustices. Vote reparations, in contrast, would be a simple, low-cost way to begin to make amends.

This idea isn’t entirely new. Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, discussed a similar proposal in 2015 in The Washington Post. While his plan to make Black Americans’ votes worth five-thirds has a poetic symmetry with the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, we shouldn’t bind a remedy to the mathematics of the compromise that formalized and furthered the dehumanization of Black people. That bargain allowed the very people who stripped us of our rights to have their votes counted for more—even more than other white people—in Congress and the Electoral College. But it’s not the only way politicians have legally denied representation to Black people. This country’s history of poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, voter purges, and intimidation should all be addressed. Tying a remedy to the three-fifths compromise implies that clause was the heart of the problem. It wasn’t and isn’t. Counting Black votes twice keeps the point clear and provides redress for myriad forms of disenfranchisement deployed against Black voters.

Vote reparations would create possibilities to build what W.E.B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy,” or the practice of achieving a racially just society. Abolition democracy invites us to engage with abolition not as a finite goal but as a radical process of challenging injustices wherever and in whatever form they might appear. Vote reparations would empower us to replace oppressive institutions with life-affirming structures of economic, social, and political equality. And if our elected representatives did not prioritize this transformational work, we could vote them out.

Because white votes currently count more than Black ones, double-counting Black votes would restore electoral balance. Vote reparations would be a giant step toward remedying our nation’s long history of denying and devaluing Black votes. To address systemic racism, we must transform how we choose our government. Even if vote reparations aren’t instituted, Black voters will keep tirelessly dragging our states toward a more perfect union. But just imagine our country if our votes counted twice.

Brandon Hasbrouckis an assistant professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law.


Latest from the nation

Click to Resize