Alexander Keyssar: Why Electoral College Reform Is Not Only Essential--But Doable (In 1969 We Almost Got Rid of It)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Alexander Keyssar, in the Boston Globe (Oct. 17, 2004):

ONE OF THE MORE surprising features of the controversy surrounding the 2000 election was its failure to spark any sustained effort to abolish or reform the Electoral College. When it first became apparent that Al Gore had won the popular vote but lost the election, some politicians and pundits predicted that the end had finally come for America's most peculiar political institution: Americans, after all, believed that democracy meant majority rule.

But months later, when a variety of committees began to consider reforms that could spare the country a repeat of Election 2000, the spotlight focused on voting technology and provisional ballots rather than the Electoral College. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former presidents Carter and Ford, decided early on not to even discuss the issue. "I think it is a waste of time to talk about changing the Electoral College," Carter observed. "I would predict that 200 years from now, we will still have the Electoral College."

Carter's prediction stemmed not from enthusiasm for the Electoral College (he had strenuously urged its abolition when he was president) but from a widely shared pessimism about the possibility of getting rid of it. The key to that pessimism was the conviction that the "small states" would never relinquish the advantage that the Electoral College gives them.

According to the Constitution, each state casts a number of electoral votes equivalent to the size of its delegation in the House of Representatives (which is proportional to the state's population) plus two (for its two Senators). This system gives disproportionate weight to voters in small states: In 2000, forexample, South Dakota had one electoral vote for every 230,000 people, while each of New York's electoral votes represented more than 500,000. Whatever the merits of the arguments for and against the Electoral College, it was assumed that the small states would defend this numerical advantage and block any constitutional amendment instituting a national popular election. Only fuzzy-minded idealists would want to tilt against that windmill.

What was not discussed in the aftermath of the 2000 election was the little-known fact that the United States came very close to abolishing the Electoral College in the late 1960s. A constitutional amendment calling for direct popular election of the president was backed by the American Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters, and a host of other un-fuzzy-minded pillars of civil society. On Sept. 18, 1969, the House of Representatives passed the amendment by a huge bipartisan vote of 338 to 70. President Nixon endorsed it, and prospects for passage in the Senate seemed reasonably good. A poll of state legislatures indicated that the amendment would likely be approved by the requisite three-quarters of the states.

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