We use the Southern secession movement of 1860-1861 to study how elites in democracy enact their preferred policies. Most states used specially convened conventions to determine whether or not to secede from the Union. We argue that although the delegates of these conventions were popularly elected, the electoral rules favored slaveholders. Using an original dataset of representation in each convention, we first demonstrate that slave-intensive districts were systematically overrepresented. Slaveholders were also spatially concentrated and could thereby obtain local pluralities in favor of secession more easily. As a result of these electoral biases, less than 10% of the electorate was sufficient to elect a majority of delegates in four of the six original Confederate states. We also show how delegates representing slave-intensive counties were more likely to support secession. These factors explain the disproportionate influence of slaveholders during the crisis and why secessionists strategically chose conventions over statewide referenda.This was not new; these special elections followed the traditional election rules of each state. But those rules counted slaves and free blacks as whole people (vs. 2/5 in the US Constitution) for the purpose of drawing electoral districts, although of course only whites could vote. Thus is districts with many slaves the power of white voters was greatly magnified, in some cases 20-fold.
This probably did not make much difference in the Deep South, where anti-Republican sentiment was strong. But for North Carolina and Virginia it was decisive – which is why many whites in western Virginia eagerly accepted Lincoln's offer to help them organize their own state, casting off rule by the slave-owners for the first time, and many in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee would have done the same if they could have.