Will the Trump-Biden Election Disaster Finally Convince Us to Scrap the Electoral College?Roundup
tags: Electoral College, voting rights, 2020 Election, apportionment, political representation
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in modern American political, social and urban/suburban history, he is the author and editor of several books including White Flight (2005), One Nation Under God (2015), and Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).
As Americans once again look to the Electoral College to resolve another close presidential contest, it’s worth remembering that a half-century ago, the nation nearly did away with the system entirely.
Over the course of the 1960s, a movement to reform and, ultimately, get rid of the Electoral College steadily gained momentum.
In 1966, Sen. Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, introduced an amendment calling for the direct election of the president by the popular vote. While others had called for small changes to the Electoral College before — removing the middlemen of electors, for instance, or allotting a state’s electoral votes on a more proportional basis — Bayh called for scrapping the antiquated system entirely.
“Mere procedural changes in the present system would be like shifting around the parts of a creaky and dangerous automobile engine, making it no less creaky and no less dangerous. What we may need is a new engine,” he suggested, “because we are in a new age.”
Bayh’s proposed constitutional amendment fared better than any one like it, receiving bipartisan support from presidents and legislators alike and even passing in the House by wide margins. But of course, the reform movement failed and the Electoral College lived on. But the history of this effort serves as a powerful reminder that it wouldn’t be unthinkable to replace this engine, especially as it’s only gotten creakier and more dangerous over the years.
The spark for the 1960s movement came out of a series of landmark Supreme Court cases that together established the precedent that democratic elections should be based on the principle of “one person, one vote.” These cases, which Chief Justice Earl Warren later declared were the most important of his entire tenure on the court — more important than Brown v. Board of Education, even — involved “malapportionment” in state-level elections.
In the early 20th century, several states instituted new measures for counting votes in state elections, measures that exaggerated the political influence of older rural areas at the expense of newer urban ones. States from California to Vermont enacted these schemes, but the most notorious systems sprang up in the Jim Crow South.
As these states became more urbanized in the mid-20th century, the imbalances became impossible to ignore. In Tennessee’s system, a single vote cast in a rural county had the same weight as 19 votes from Hamilton County. Under Georgia’s program, meanwhile, a lone ballot in the state’s smallest county counted as much as 99 votes sent from Atlanta’s Fulton County.
The Supreme Court had long shied away from “political” cases, but the egregiousness of the imbalance — and the ramifications it had in southern and national politics — convinced the Warren court to wade in at last, articulating the “one person, one vote” principle and implementing it across the South and the nation.
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