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A Brief History of Electoral College Reform Efforts

Efforts to reform or abolish the Electoral College have existed throughout the history of the United States. These efforts have failed to gain traction with the 12th Amendment’s separation of electoral votes for president and vice president a notable exception. The history of Electoral College reforms shows the moving parts required at the state and federal level to change a constitutional institution.

Early Reform Efforts

The 12th Amendment’s ratification in 1804 is the only alteration to the structure of the Electoral College. Members of Congress, however, have suggested changes to electoral voting throughout the country’s history. There were at least 752 known proposals to change the electoral system from 1789 to 2017, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Electoral reform efforts often reflect the political anxieties of the time. In 1800, representatives debated a national plan to award electoral votes based on popular vote victories by congressional district. The winner of a state’s popular vote would have received the state’s at-large electoral votes under this plan.

An 1808 proposal by Senator James Hillhouse would have limited each U.S. senator to one three-year term and allowed the Senate to select the president from outgoing senators. These debates revealed lingering tensions over the appropriate balance of direct democracy and republicanism that originally resulted in the Electoral College.

Congressional reform proposals began to reflect the country’s sectional tensions prior to the Civil War. An 1822 reform would have established a regional rotation for the presidency. Another proposal from 1848 would have awarded each state’s electoral votes based on each candidate’s popular vote share. In 1860, Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson proposed rotation of the presidency between northern and southern states to head off conflict between the regions.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were insufficient conditions for any of these reforms to emerge from congressional committees. Between the Civil War and World War II, American politics focused on rapid growth, international involvement, and other political reforms. As America emerged from the conflict, Congress took up debates about electoral voting at a pace unseen in the nation’s history.

The Peak of Congressional Electoral College Reform

The Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate held hearings on 17 Electoral College reform plans between 1948 and 1979. These plans coincided with regional shifts in the Democratic and Republican parties that resulted in close presidential elections in 1948, 1960, and 1968. The Supreme Court’s decision in Gray v. Sanders (1963) also encouraged reformers who took up Justice William Douglas’s support for “one person, one vote.”

Proposals during this period focused on eliminating the position of elector and using proportional allocation of electoral votes. Senator Birch Bayh, the chair of the Senate Constitutional Amendment Subcommittee, advocated for a direct connection between state popular votes and electoral vote allocations. The American Bar Association endorsed Bayh’s plan in 1967 and the 1968 presidential election provided momentum among Democrats and Republicans to support changes.

In the 1968 election, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate who won 45 electoral votes from Southern states. Wallace also received a faithless elector vote from a Republican elector pledged to support Richard Nixon. Nixon, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and leaders from both parties were concerned throughout the campaign that Wallace’s campaign would prevent a majority winner in the Electoral College.

Nixon supported a House resolution to eliminate electoral votes and use the national popular vote to decide presidential elections. This resolution also required a runoff election between the top two vote recipients if no candidate received 40 percent of the national popular vote. The House exceeded the two-thirds vote requirement to advance constitutional amendments. Northeast Republicans and Southern Democrats in the Senate ultimately blocked the resolution by 1970 due to concerns about constitutional change and regional influence, respectively.

The last electoral college amendment to receive a vote from the full House or Senate occurred in 1979. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter advocated for a popular-vote plan as part of a federal election reform proposal. The Senate did not approve the amendment by a two-thirds majority in 1979, while the House did not take up the amendment due to the lack of momentum in the upper chamber.

State Level Reform Efforts

Since 1979, advocates for Electoral College reform have shifted their efforts from Congress to the states. This shift was fueled by the difficulty in getting two-thirds of both congressional chambers and three-quarters of state legislatures to agree on an amendment. State laws and constitutions present opportunities to reform how electoral votes are allocated without dealing with the U.S. Constitution.

In 2004, Coloradans voted on an amendment that would have enshrined proportional allocation of electoral votes in the state constitution. Amendment 36 supporters argued that proportional allocation would motivate voters who feel disconnected from the presidential election. Opponents prevailed with 65% of the vote by countering that the state’s influence in national politics would decline by splitting electoral votes.

In the 21st century, state legislatures have taken up electoral vote proposals that have not advanced. Michigan legislators did not approve vote allocation by congressional district, while the Virginia legislature rejected a plan to award electoral votes based on the ticket that won the majority of congressional districts. Legislators in Nebraska have rejected proposals to switch from by-district allocation to a winner-takes-all plan.

Reform Efforts by Advocacy Groups

The U.S. Constitution’s silence on state allocations of electoral votes creates an avenue for electoral reformers. National Popular Vote Inc. advocates an interstate compact that leverages state legislative interest in electoral vote reforms. The compact requires participating states to allocate their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

National Popular Vote Inc. argues that the Electoral College allows presidential candidates to avoid small states and provides openings for a popular vote loser to win the presidency. As of December 2018, 12 state legislatures representing 172 electoral votes joined the compact. The compact language only holds participating states to this agreement once states representing 270 electoral votes – a majority of the Electoral College – have joined.

Equal Citizens is seeking electoral reform via the court system. In February 2018, the organization worked with Democratic voters to file suit against state officials in South Carolina and Texas. Equal Citizens also worked with Republican voters to sue state officials in California and Massachusetts. These lawsuits argue that voters in traditionally Democratic or Republican voters have been disenfranchised by the Electoral College.

The organization hopes that these cases advance to the U.S. Supreme Court prior to the 2020 presidential election. Equal Citizens has worked with faithless electors from 2016 in Colorado and Washington to advocate for changes to state laws restricting elector decisions. This group also advocates for ranked-choice voting to be implemented for the 2020 primaries in New Hampshire.