As Americans once again look to the Electoral College to resolve another close presidential contest, it’s worth remembering that a half-century ago, the nation nearly did away with the system entirely.
Over the course of the 1960s, a movement to reform and, ultimately, get rid of the Electoral College steadily gained momentum.
“Mere procedural changes in the present system would be like shifting around the parts of a creaky and dangerous automobile engine.”
In 1966, Sen. Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, introduced an amendment calling for the direct election of the president by the popular vote. While others had called for small changes to the Electoral College before – removing the middlemen of electors, for instance, or allotting a state’s electoral votes on a more proportional basis – Bayh called for scrapping the antiquated system entirely.
“Mere procedural changes in the present system would be like shifting around the parts of a creaky and dangerous automobile engine, making it no less creaky and no less dangerous. What we may need is a new engine,” he suggested, “because we are in a new age.”
Arguably, we’re still living through that crisis today. We’ve felt the restrictions of the Electoral College in this current election, as we watch former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump tediously battle it out for electoral votes county by county. In two of the previous five presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote was denied the presidency due to the Electoral College. And for a brief period this week, it seemed likely that it might happen once again in 2020.
In these instances, the margin between the popular-vote winner and the winner of the Electoral College has only grown. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by a half million votes; in 2016, Hillary Clinton won it by nearly 3 million votes. As of Thursday evening, Joe Biden had racked up roughly a 4 million vote lead, with more votes yet to be counted, but not even that margin was enough to guarantee a win. (As some noted before the election, Biden could have won the popular vote by 5 or 6 percentage points and still had a real chance at losing the race.)
Biden could have won the popular vote by 5 or 6 percentage points and still had a real chance at losing the race.
Bayh’s proposed constitutional amendment fared better than any one like it, receiving bipartisan support from presidents and legislators alike and even passing in the House by wide margins. But