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When the Electoral College Nearly Died

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Above right: still the most influential Republican thinker on civil rights

I was this many days old when I found out how close the nation came to abolishing the Electoral College in 1969-70.

On September 18, 1969, the U.S. House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming 338 to 70 to send a constitutional amendment to the Senate that would have dismantled the Electoral College, the indirect system by which Americans elect the president and vice president.

“It was the only time in American history that a chamber of Congress actually approved an amendment to abolish the Electoral College,” says Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and author of Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.

The House vote, which came in the wake of an extraordinarily close presidential election, mirrored national sentiment about scrapping an electoral system that allowed a candidate to win the presidency even while losing the popular vote. A 1968 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans believed it was time to elect the nation’s highest office by direct popular vote.

Yet just a year later, the Senate bill that would have ended the Electoral College was dead in the water, filibustered by a cadre of Southern lawmakers intent on preserving the majority’s grip on electoral power in their states. Despite widespread bipartisan support for the amendment in both large and small states, the Senate came five votes shy of breaking the filibuster.

Who was responsible for killing this necessary effort? Well, it won’t surprise you.

A handful of Southern lawmakers led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the bill, a parliamentary maneuver used to block a vote. Why were “Dixiecrats” so intent on keeping the Electoral College? Wegman argues racial subjugation was at play.

Southern states like South Carolina were still majority white in the late 1960s. The Electoral College, with its winner-take-all system, ensured that the white voting bloc would essentially cancel out the Black vote in the South.

“[Thurmond and his allies] knew that if Black voters could vote on equal terms with whites, which is what would happen during a popular vote, that advantage would disappear,” says Wegman. “For them, saving the electoral college was protecting their place in the racial hierarchy that their slaveholding ancestors had created.”

Thurmond knew that his Senate filibuster could be broken with a two-thirds vote, so he needed more supporters than just his fellow segregationists. What Thurmond did next was nothing short of “brilliant,” admits Wegman. He courted prominent Black and Jewish leaders in large cities like New York City.

While Blacks in the South had comparatively little political sway in presidential elections, the situation was the opposite up North. New York was perhaps the most important swing state at the time and you couldn’t take the state without winning the districts in New York City. If a candidate wanted to win those districts, they had to get the support of the Black and Jewish communities, two of the largest racial or ethnic minorities in the city. What that meant for Black and Jewish leaders in New York City is a seat at the table and a voice in local, state and national policymaking.

Thurmond sent personal telegrams to Black and Jewish leaders in New York, Chicago and Detroit, explaining that a direct popular vote would erode their political influence. If minority voting blocs could no longer ensure a winner-take-all electoral victory, they would risk losing their seat at the table.

To Bayh’s dismay, a group of NAACP lobbyists came into his Senate office in 1970 and asked him to drop the amendment.

Ah yes, the combination of racists and vested power players in minority districts featherbedding their own power rather than pushing for true democracy. A great combination.

If Democrats retake the Senate, agenda item #1 has to be eliminating the filibuster.

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