Back in 1969, by a whopping vote of 339-70, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives united to pass legislation to do away with the electoral college.
A companion bill, co-sponsored by Montana Senator Mike Mansfield and supported by President Nixon, carried the Senate by a strong vote of 53-34. That, though, was short of the 2/3 majority necessary to pass the proposal on to the states for ratification as is required for amendments to the Constitution.
What drew the two parties together was the election of 1968 in which independent candidate George Wallace carried enough states to nearly keep either Democrat Hubert Humphrey or Republican Richard Nixon from receiving a majority of the electoral votes.
The minority of Senators who killed the bill was made up significantly of southerners whose states had been won by Wallace.
Except for President Obama, Hillary Clinton just won more popular votes than any presidential candidate in history, but her opponent Donald Trump, will be the next President due to a solid win in the electoral college. It is the fifth time that the electoral college has overruled the vote of the people.
Our Constitution is acclaimed for its brevity and clarity, but perhaps its most arcane and troublesome contrivance is the electoral college. When our nation’s founders came to an impasse over how our Congress should be structured, a compromise was reached which resulted in the House of Representatives to represent the people, and the Senate in which the states are represented equally.
The electoral college resulted from that congressional compromise being used in electing the President. Each state is allotted as many “electors” as it has members of the House of Representatives and Senate combined. It is consistent in theory with the compromise that created our Congress.
Influenced by tradition, and also by the argument that the electoral college benefits small states like Montana by not being based solely on population, I’ve supported it.
I’m beginning to have serious doubts. Within our constitutional framework, elections are how people give their consent to government. A government established without the consent of the governed inherently lacks the mandate of the people to govern. Through no fault of Trump or Clinton, but because of the electoral college, that is where we find ourselves now.
Various ideas have surfaced for how we can reform our electoral system to make it more representative of the people. Most would do away with the “winner-take-all” approach in which the candidate who wins the popular vote of a state, even by a narrow margin, wins all the state’s electoral votes. This can be accomplished by awarding delegates on the basis of congressional districts, as Main and Nebraska do now, or by the percentage of the vote won by candidates within each state. Neither of these reforms would require a Constitutional amendment, but they would require broad cooperation among the states.
By these approaches the electoral vote of the states would probably more accurately reflect the popular vote of the country. The small state advantage of including senators as well as representatives in determining state’s electors would be preserved. Presidential candidates would have an incentive to appeal to the people everywhere and not just in the big “battleground” states.
Maybe, though, the electoral college is simply a complicated and irrelevant relic “of the horse and buggy days” as Montana Senator Mansfield referred to it back in the 60s. Maybe we should simply get rid of it as he believed, and let the people decide by their equal votes who our Presidents should be.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.
This column has been updated to correct information on which presidential candidate has received the most popular votes in U.S. history. Barack Obama received the most, and Hillary Clinton received the second-most.