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Associated Press File Photo / President Richard Nixon, just a month after taking office in 1969, proposed what amounted to an elimintion of the Electoral College. The measure was approved by the U.S. House and a U.S. Senate Committee but never got a vote on the Senate floor.

Almost all of the top Democratic candidates for president in 2020 advocate abolishing the Electoral College, the Founding Fathers' device for not allowing the most populous states to dominate voting for the country's chief executive.

They had seen, after all, Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump elected in 2000 and 2016, respectively, with fewer popular votes than their opponent.

Republicans, meanwhile, imagine a country where Al Gore was president after 9/11 and Hillary Clinton was presiding over a 2019 economy and thank their lucky stars for the Founding Fathers.

But, in fact, it was during the term of a Republican, and less than 50 years ago, when the Electoral College came the closest to being abolished.

Indeed, 50 years ago this week, a headline in the Chattanooga News-Free Press announced, "Nixon Backs Direct Vote On President."

He said although some senators felt differently, "I hope, therefore, that two-thirds of the Senate will approve the House-passed amendment as promptly as possible so that all of us together can then urge the states to give their approval."

Such a change would have then, and still would today, require a constitutional amendment.

President Richard Nixon, only a month in office in February 1969, made a proposal for election reform. It wasn't exactly the direct election he would support more than seven months later.

What he envisioned would mandate that a candidate with the largest number of popular votes, but at least 40% of the votes cast, would be elected. If neither of the two candidates with the most votes had at least 40%, a run-off election would be held 10 days later.

Only once in the history of the country had the scenario Nixon envisioned happened. In 1860, a divided U.S. elected Abraham Lincoln president with 39.8% of the vote. Had Nixon's proposal have been enacted at the time, Lincoln would have had a run-off election 10 days later with Northern Democrat Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Both Illinois men, over the next short few days, would have had to schmooze the voters of third-place finisher John C. Breckinridge, the sitting vice president who was running as a Southern Democrat, and fourth-place finisher John Bell, a former congressman and senator from Tennessee who was running on the Constitutional Union ticket.

In addition to George W. Bush and Trump, the other presidents who would not have been elected by popular vote were Democrat-Republican John Quincy Adams in 1824 (Andrew Jackson instead), Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 (Samuel J. Tilden instead) and Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888 (Grover Cleveland instead).

Nixon, while thinking of the historical implications of a scenario in which neither major party candidate received the required number of Electoral College votes to win, also was thinking of himself.

In 1968, when Nixon won the presidency, segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace garnered 46 electoral votes, the most for a third-place candidate in U.S. history. Nixon, thinking ahead to his potential re-election in 1972, believed that Wallace could be even stronger. So the election reform was a strategic decision.

Nixon's 1968 Democratic opponent, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, endorsed the reform proposal in April 1969. On Sept. 18, it overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House, 339-70. The Senate Judiciary Committee later approved it, 11-6. And at the time, it was believed 30 of the 38 states (three-fourths) that would be needed to ratify such a constitutional amendment stood ready to do so.

But Southern Senate Democrats and a few small-state Republicans felt the measure would reduce the clout of their votes. The bill remained in a Senate committee for a year and didn't wind up on the floor for debate until September 1970. At the time, opponents filibustered the bill, and the filibuster survived two votes to end it. Eventually, the bill was tabled and not resurrected in the next Congress.

Nixon, in addition, no longer was pushing it, believing the Wallace-voting Southern states might be persuaded to become Nixon states in 1972.

Today, with such polarized parties, Democrats enmeshed in numerous campaign giveaway promises and the vast majority of Democratic votes congregated in large-population states on the East and West Coast, it would be foolhardy for a Republican to endorse direct election. Indeed, perhaps never more in U.S. history has the reason for establishing the Electoral College been more valid.

Without an Electoral College, one party-dominated states like California, New York and Illinois would control every presidential election. The Founding Fathers were visionary in their wisdom of creating the Electoral College then, and it still serves us well today.

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