There is again some hope that we will reform our process of electing presidents after Donald Trump on Tuesday became the fifth person in American history to win the electoral college vote without winning the popular vote. Already, supporters of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — who won the popular vote — have demanded by demonstrations and petitions that the electoral college alter its procedures so that the winner of the popular vote never again loses the election.
But those hoping for reform shouldn’t hold their breath. Electoral college reform has never been an issue that gains much traction. The power of small states within the Senate combined with the fact that voters don’t tend to elevate this issue to the same urgent status of other issues has usually left proposals for an amendment to die on the vine. This time likely won’t be different.
Consider history: Following the election of 1968, there was a serious push for a constitutional amendment to move to a system of popular elections, though there had not been a constitutional amendment to change the electoral vote since 1804. Constitutional amendments required the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as three-fourths of state legislatures.
Interest in reform emerged after the third-party candidate, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a racist firebrand, ran a campaign that appealed to white working-class Americans by playing on their anger toward all the changes the civil rights movement had wrought. Wallace’s electors said that they would vote for whomever their candidate wanted. Given that Republican Richard Nixon’s victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey was one of the closest in American history, this threat was taken seriously. When the electoral college met to confirm Nixon’s victory, one of Wallace’s electors, North Carolina Republican Floyd Bailey, indeed voted for Wallace instead of Nixon — confirming the danger Wallace could cause to Nixon’s candidacy.
With the lukewarm support of the Nixon administration, Sen.Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, led a serious push for a constitutional amendment to change the system. The electoral college, Bayh said, “is inherently inconsistent with the most fundamental concept of a democratic society.” Every vote, he argued, “should count the same.” But he ran into a small-state firewall. First, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina tied up the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee and, working with fellow Republicans such as Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska, would not let it out for a vote. Bayh played hardball when Nixon nominated Harold Carswell to be associate justice of the Supreme Court on Jan. 19, 1970. Bayh threatened to filibuster the nomination unless Thurmond let the bill out for a vote. Thurmond conceded. The committee voted in favor of the amendment. The majority warned:
A shift from (Richard M.) Nixon to (Hubert H.) Humphrey of only 42,000 popular votes in three states would have denied Nixon an electoral majority and given (George C.) Wallace, with his 46 electoral votes, the balance of power….
The elector is to the body politic what the appendix is to the human body….
The elector, in fact, is merely a symptom of what the American Bar Association’s Special Commission on Electoral Reform aptly described as our “archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous” method of electing a President.
But when the amendment reached the Senate, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina led a filibuster and killed the amendment. There was little political backlash so legislators moved on.
The next major push for reform took place after the disastrous 2000 election when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote and Democrats contested the results because of faulty ballots in certain counties and allegations of suppressed votes in urban areas. The recount process exposed Americans to a brutal, partisan battle over counting the vote. Many Democrats were outraged when the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Bush v. Gore, leading to George W. Bush becoming the next president. Mourning the turn of events, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in 2001, “The Electoral College gives states with small populations disproportionate weight, so Mr. Bush now resides in the White House even though Al Gore got more votes.”
As in 1968, there was — temporarily — energized interest in moving toward a popular system. Commissions were formed, political debates were had, and a number of politicians said that reform was more urgent than ever before. Hillary Clinton herself said, almost prophetically: “We are a very different country than we were 200 years ago. I believe strongly that in a democracy. We should respect the will of the people and to me. That means it’s time to do away with the electoral college and move to the popular election of our president.”
Yet nothing happened.
Once again, legislators from smaller states, who had little incentive to try to change the system, stood firm in defending the existing system as something that has served the nation well. Voters, though worked up after election, didn’t create any sustained political pressure for reform. Eleven state legislatures have signed onto the National Popular Vote interstate compact, which would guarantee that the candidate who wins the popular vote would receive all the support of the allied states when the electoral college meets.
This time, all the factors that have undermined reform are still at work. Smaller states just played a major role in the election of a Republican president. Conservatives have depended on the institutional biases in our political system, from the electoral college to partisan gerrymandering, that allow smaller, older, whiter and more rural constituents to maintain inordinate influence even as demographic changes are rapidly transforming most of America. There are many on the right who will not willingly abandon this pivotal source of power.
Nor is there evidence that enough voters are going to mobilize on this issue in a way that would cause politicians to fear for their jobs. In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights organizations always made procedural changes like congressional reform (such as the discharge petition to allow liberals to get bills out of the hands of obstructionist chairs and filibuster reform) and were successful at placing these issues on the agenda. Reporters shined a light on the way that southerners were trying to filibuster the civil rights bill of 1964. Right now it’s unlikely for such a turn of events to take place. None of the major social movements of the day have made electoral college reform a central issue, and given the radical direction Republicans promise to take public policy there is little evidence reform will gain steam. After all, many Americans, especially those whose candidate just won, are comfortable with the status quo and aren’t interested in making electoral college reform a major political issue. It will be interesting to see if grass-roots social movements like Black Lives Matter pick it up as an issue, and whether they have success in the long term.
But judging by history, the best bet is that the electoral college will survive. This will check some of the potential changes that have been predicted about the way in which a more diverse, pluralistic and “browner” America will shift electoral politics. If we want a different outcome, we’ll have to change the rules of the game.