Tags: Electoral | College | Has | Endured

Electoral College Has Endured

Tuesday, 14 November 2000 12:00 AM

So far, the limited discussion of this issue has taken place without reference to the major attempts to abolish the Electoral College that took place in the decade from 1969-1979 with strong support from Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

Nixon, who had bad memories of the effect of the winner-take-all features of the Electoral College on his election attempt in 1960, and even worse fears of what George Wallace might have done if his 1968 electors had held the balance of power the year before, told Congress early in his term that he would support any plan that eliminated individual electors and distributed the electoral vote of every state "in a manner more closely approximating the popular vote."

Republicans, who generally do better in smaller states, liked the "overrepresentation" of those states by the addition of two Senate seats per state, and therefore also liked the idea of electing a president on the basis of one vote per congressional district, with the two statewide votes going to the state winner – the system already in place in Nebraska and Maine.

Democrats, who controlled the House, did not like these ideas and preferred direct popular vote.

The amendment they proposed in response to Nixon's suggestion, which passed the House in 1969 by an overwhelming vote of 338-70, provided for direct popular election, with 40 percent required to win, and a run-off if no candidate got to 40 percent.

The amendment left to future congressional legislation the filling of vacancies caused by the death, resignation or disability of nominees before the election or of victors in the post-election period.

Nixon endorsed the House proposal and recommended it to the Senate.

But when it reached the Senate floor in September 1970, small-state and Southern senators filibustered the bill. Two attempts at cloture – the technical term for the super majority (60-40) required to end a filibuster – failed, and the resolution was laid aside on Oct. 5. Nixon and Congress went on to other matters.

Early in his term, Jimmy Carter, who had just eked out a narrow win in the Electoral College, revived the House amendment by including it in his election reform package of March 22, 1977.

Since everyone knew the House would approve it again, the proposal started in the Senate. After months of debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the plan on Sept. 15, 1977, by a vote of 9-8. But the Senate leadership knew it faced another filibuster and had many priorities greater than the amendment. It agreed that the bill would be allowed to die and be brought up again early in the next Congress, the 96th.

On the first day of the new Congress in January 1979, Senator Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, proposed the amendment again. Unfortunately for its proponents, blacks and Jews joined conservatives and Southerners in opposition to the changes, arguing that their influence was maximized in the Electoral College by their ability to swing the vote in large, well-represented, urban states.

Although the members of this left-right coalition were recruited by very different arguments, there were enough of them to defeat the bill when it got to the Senate floor in July. The Senate voted in favor by 51-48, 15 votes less than the two-thirds required under the Constitution.

Since the next five presidential elections were won by relatively large margins, the question of the Electoral College failed to agitate anyone until this year, when all the old arguments have revived once more.

It seems that Americans are aware of the weaknesses of their system only when they demonstrate themselves, but rapidly forget its problems when they are not thrust before them. And it's a safe bet that, although a majority of the population supports a change in the Electoral College, the minority that supports it is well enough represented in the political system to ensure that the Electoral College will once again endure.

Copyright 2000 by United Press International.

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So far, the limited discussion of this issue has taken place without reference to the major attempts to abolish the Electoral College that took place in the decade from 1969-1979 with strong support from Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Nixon, who had bad...
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Tuesday, 14 November 2000 12:00 AM
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