Sorry, Lady Gaga. We’re not reforming the electoral college any time soon.

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tags: election 2016, Electoral College, Trump



Julian Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society."  Follow @julianzelizer

There is again some hope that we will reform our process of electing presidents after Donald Trump on Tuesday became the fifth person in American history to win the electoral college vote without winning the popular vote. Already, supporters of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — who won the popular vote — have demanded by demonstrations and petitions that the electoral college alter its procedures so that the winner of the popular vote never again loses the election.

But those hoping for reform shouldn’t hold their breath. Electoral college reform has never been an issue that gains much traction. The power of small states within the Senate combined with the fact that voters don’t tend to elevate this issue to the same urgent status of other issues has usually left proposals for an amendment to die on the vine. This time likely won’t be different.

Consider history: Following the election of 1968, there was a serious push for a constitutional amendment to move to a system of popular elections, though there had not been a constitutional amendment to change the electoral vote since 1804. Constitutional amendments required the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as three-fourths of state legislatures.

Interest in reform emerged after the third-party candidate, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a racist firebrand, ran a campaign that appealed to white working-class Americans by playing on their anger toward all the changes the civil rights movement had wrought. Wallace’s electors said that they would vote for whomever their candidate wanted. Given that Republican Richard Nixon’s victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey was one of the closest in American history, this threat was taken seriously. When the electoral college met to confirm Nixon’s victory, one of Wallace’s electors, North Carolina Republican Floyd Bailey, indeed voted for Wallace instead of Nixon — confirming the danger Wallace could cause to Nixon’s candidacy.

With the lukewarm support of the Nixon administration, Sen.Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, led a serious push for a constitutional amendment to change the system. The electoral college, Bayh said, “is inherently inconsistent with the most fundamental concept of a democratic society.” Every vote, he argued, “should count the same.” But he ran into a small-state firewall. First, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina tied up the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee and, working with fellow Republicans such as Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska, would not let it out for a vote. Bayh played hardball when Nixon nominated Harold Carswell to be associate justice of the Supreme Court on Jan. 19, 1970. Bayh threatened to filibuster the nomination unless Thurmond let the bill out for a vote. Thurmond conceded. The committee voted in favor of the amendment. The majority warned:

A shift from (Richard M.) Nixon to (Hubert H.) Humphrey of only 42,000 popular votes in three states would have denied Nixon an electoral majority and given (George C.) Wallace, with his 46 electoral votes, the balance of power….

 

The elector is to the body politic what the appendix is to the human body….


The elector, in fact, is merely a symptom of what the American Bar Association’s Special Commission on Electoral Reform aptly described as our “archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous” method of electing a President. ...




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