Of the 700 Attempts to Fix or Abolish the Electoral College, this One Nearly SucceededHistorians in the News
tags: Electoral College, George Wallace, Constitutional Amendments, Birch Bayh
The fight to reform or abolish the electoral college began almost as soon as it was created, by those who created it. In 1802, Alexander Hamilton, one of the original architects of the electoral college, was so displeased with how it was being executed that he helped draft a constitutional amendment to fix it. Since then there have been more than 700 efforts to reform or abolish it, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The electoral college is once again confounding the country as it prepares to meet Dec. 14 to ratify the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. Just one problem: President Trump refuses to concede to Biden, making baseless claims of fraud while his surrogates urged Michigan legislators to overturn the election by appointing their own electors. On Saturday, Trump phoned Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and urged him to call a special session of the state legislature and persuade lawmakers to appoint electors that would back him instead of Biden, The Washington Post reported.
Biden is expected to win the electoral college by the same margin Trump did in 2016. Back then, Trump declared his victory a landslide, though he trailed in the popular vote by nearly 3 million while this time Biden leads the popular vote by more than 7 million.
The closest the country has ever come to abolishing the electoral college was after segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s presidential campaign nearly threw the 1968 election.
Wallace was a man accustomed to winning power on technicalities. The state constitution in Alabama forbade governors from serving two consecutive terms. When his first term as governor was running out in 1966, his wife Lurleen ran to succeed him, promising to “continue, with my husband’s help, the same type of government.” She won in a landslide.
So, when he decided to run for president in 1968 as a third-party candidate, he had a trick up his sleeve there, too. His goal wasn’t to beat the Democratic or Republican candidates for the White House; it was to deprive both men of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, thus kicking the decision to the House. Then, as his biographer Dan Carter put it in a 2001 PBS documentary, Wallace would be “in a position to dictate to either candidate, ‘Alright, if you support me on the following issues, then I’ll deliver the presidency.’ ” And what were those issues? An end to federal desegregation efforts, for starters.
By this time, Wallace had learned the art of the dog whistle and was no longer saying things like “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” out loud. But he still inflamed rally crowds with his talk of rioters, hippies and anarchists. In the chaos of 1968, many White voters flocked to him. By October, polls showed him with 22 percent support nationally, more than enough for his electoral college hack to work.
But then Wallace dealt himself his own October surprise. He announced his running mate, Curtis LeMay, a retired Air Force general, who promptly told a room full of reporters he wasn’t opposed to nuking Vietnam.
In the end, Wallace got 14 percent of the popular vote, and 46 electoral votes, carrying most of the South. But Republican Richard M. Nixon got 301 electoral votes, foiling Wallace’s plan. Had Wallace gotten 50,000 more votes in Tennessee and had Democrat Hubert Humphrey gotten 91,000 more votes in Ohio, it would have been successful.
The near miss was enough to spur Congress to action.