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The Electoral College Votes Today. But Politicians Have Been Trying to Reform It for Decades

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Correction appended, 11:00 a.m.

The casting of votes by presidential electors has not often, in modern American history, been a newsworthy moment. But 2016 is proving to be an unusual year. The electoral vote on Monday—by the people who represent the Electoral College votes awarded on Election Day—has been the occasion for much speculation, hope and debate. At least one Republican elector has said he will not vote for Donald Trump, and the President-elect’s critics have called for others to step forward as so-called faithless electors. And, given that 2016 was another election in which the result of the Electoral College vote did not match the popular vote result, others are calling for getting rid of the system altogether.

This is far from the first time the Electoral College has come under fire. In fact, in 1823, Thomas Jefferson himself called the election system “the most dangerous blot in our constitution.”

And yet the system has weathered reform attempts for more than two centuries—including one relatively recent challenge that almost went all the way, and which exposes both the enduring problems of the system and the persistent difficulty of reform.

At the time, at a key moment for the civil-rights era, segregation was the issue that brought the problem to the forefront. In the 1940s, the Democratic Party had seen a split between Southern segregationist “Dixiecrats” and the national party, and the 1960s threatened a similar split between hard-line segregationists and the national mainstream. What would happen if a state’s vote went to a candidate who supported integration? Would Southern electors choose the faithless route, supporting a segregationist candidate instead? If an entire region went that route, what would happen to the split vote?

Unsurprisingly, what people thought of that possibility differed according to what they thought about segregation. In 1963, some segregationists supported a plan that would explicitly free electors to vote however they wanted. Meanwhile, others tried to prevent such a thing from happening. As TIME reported, the segregationist plan was one of seven Electoral College reform ideas that the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments was then considering. One plan, which had been proposed by then-President John F. Kennedy before he was in the White House, would just get rid of the electors and assign a state’s Electoral College votes to the candidate who won that state. Another plan increased the proportionality of Electoral College votes. Still another got rid of the College altogether and went straight to the popular vote.

For a moment, it looked like the Electoral College could actually be reformed—the only question was what that reform would look like.

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In his 1965 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson promised to propose reforms to the system, which would maintain the importance of the states while “making sure that no elector can substitute his will for that of the people.” By 1966, Johnson made good on his promise, asking Congress to change the system, specifically in order to prevent the possibility of faithless electors.

Johnson’s request did not lead to immediate change, but in 1968 the need for reform returned to the national conversation. In the wake of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party nomination process was thrown into chaos, and many voters felt that the eventual nomination of Hubert Humphrey did not represent their wishes, prompting calls for reform on that side of the aisle. Meanwhile, Republicans worried that the outsider candidacy of segregationist George Wallace would throw a wrench in their own plans, raising the possibility that no candidate would receive an Electoral College majority come November.

“In the 180 years since ratification, more than 500 proposals have been advanced in Congress for abolishing or altering the College. Forty reform amendments are currently before the House Judiciary Committee, and debate about the function and wisdom of the system is reaching the highest pitch in decades,” TIME noted that fall, in an essay calling for a direct popular vote for the president. The piece quoted political scientist James MacGregor Burns with one colorful analogy for the system: “It’s a game of Russian roulette, and one of these days we are going to blow our brains out.”

Come the election, however, the fears proved unfounded: Richard Nixon won the popular vote and the Electoral College.

“We have flirted,” said Birch Bayh, the Indiana Democrat leading the charge for the direct popular vote, “with the most dangerous constitutional crisis faced by the United States in a long time.”

Nixon’s victory spared the nation a crisis, but it also reduced the chance that significant reform would prevail. (At least one faithless elector, however, did vote for Wallace despite his state’s vote for Nixon.) Still, Bayh and his compatriots felt that, if Nixon followed Johnson’s lead in pushing for reform, it was possible.

At the time, acknowledgement of the role of slavery in the formation of the system made civil-rights era politicians more willing to part with the tradition, and polls showed that the average citizen agreed: A Harris poll showed that 79% of respondents wanted to get rid of the Electoral College, and Gallup put the number at 81%.

In September of 1969, the House—after the idea received bipartisan Judiciary Committee support—voted 339-to-70 to approve Bayh’s Constitutional amendment that would abolish the old system. In the spring of 1970, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee seconded the endorsement. Still, there were fears, for example that direct elections would lead to confusion by encouraging many spoiler candidates to throw their hats in the ring, that a president could be elected without broad geographic support, that campaigning would get prohibitively expensive or, perhaps most importantly, that nixing the state-by-state system would erode the basic federalist system of U.S. government. And both parties worried that a change of any kind would somehow advantage one party or the other. Ultimately, though Nixon did say he supported the amendment, he did not go out of his way to push for it and it never managed to gain enough support to defeat a Senate filibuster.

“In all, more than 100 futile attempts have been made to junk the Electoral College. When the Senate last week tried for the second time in three weeks to quash a mild filibuster against the proposed amendment, it fell five votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority,” TIME observed in October of 1970. “Bayh was quick to point out that the measure itself was never allowed to come to a floor vote. The effect was the same: the survival of the electoral vote system is assured through 1972 and perhaps beyond.”

But, even as the Electoral College has in 2016 made its enduring influence clear, whether it ought to continue to survive is once again in question: This November, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced a bill that would replace the system with direct popular election.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the results of the 1968 presidential election. Richard Nixon won the popular vote without a majority. It also mischaracterized the party split on segregation in the early 1960s. Many of the segregationists of the time had formerly been Democrats.


Correction, Nov. 26, 2018:

The original photo caption that appeared with this story misstated who is pictured in Howard Chandler Christy’s painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is not among those depicted.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com