Power  /  Comment

The Electoral College Conundrum

There’s no consensus on abolishing the Electoral College, which has countered the popular vote in two of the past five presidential elections.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Even in the pantheon of maligned features of the American republic—gerrymandering, the Senate, first-past-the-post, voter repression—the Electoral College stands out. It’s a chimera, a system that serves as a rubber stamp when it’s working well, and as a massive, semi-automatic check on the popular will when it’s not. Formed as a deliberative body, it now has only a ceremonial semblance of such a function. The position of elector is essentially a sinecure that conveys no real financial or reputational rewards.

Almost half a century before Donald Trump became president, his victory was nearly undone. It was a close thing: The House of Representatives easily passed a constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the electoral college. The Senate was getting closer and closer, just a few votes shy of the required two-thirds majority. Then the midterms came along, and Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, an auteur of constitutional amendments second only to James Madison, was forced to shelve the proposal.  

Bayh’s proposed amendment was the last serious attempt to alter the Constitution and do away with the Electoral College. Four times in American history, the candidate who lost the popular vote has won the Electoral College. Exactly who is advantaged by the institution is up for debate; some experts argue that, mathematically, the residents of larger states are empowered. Others say that small states come out on top. Most, however, agree that swing states get more than their fair share of political power and campaign attention come election time. But it’s unclear whether the system can change, and even those who think it should can’t agree on how to do it.

Bayh saw direct popular vote as “a kind of logical outcome to the continuing expanding of the franchise in the U.S.,” a natural extension of the then-newborn Voting Rights Act, says Jay Berman, a legislative aide to the senator from 1965 to 1972, when he became his chief of staff. (Bayh, who is 90, was not available for comment.) It was a piece of the great project of empowering the average citizen, which Bayh would further soon after with the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age, and which he would attempt to expand again when he authored the Equal Rights Amendment.

The measure was bipartisan.