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In the 1968 presidential race, former Alabama Governor George Wallace (left) ran a third-party campaign that some feared would deny an Electoral College majority to either Richard Nixon (right) or Hubert Humphrey.
In the 1968 presidential race, former Alabama Governor George Wallace (left) ran a third-party campaign that some feared would deny an Electoral College majority to either Richard Nixon (right) or Hubert Humphrey. (Bettman;Corbis / AP Photos)

Peculiar institution

Page 2 of 4 -- The effort ultimately failed -- but not because of concerted opposition from the small states. In fact, many political leaders from small states supported the amendment. What blocked the reform movement was a more troublesome cleavage -- one involving race and the political power of the South.

. . . . . . . .

The way America elects its presidents has been controversial since the early years of the Republic. Between 1790 and 1890, more than 200 amendments were introduced into Congress to alter the electoral system, and a similar number appeared in the 20th century.

Between 1948 and 1956, Congress seriously considered several amendments designed to eliminate the "winner take all" allocation of electoral votes -- ironically, in order to reduce the power of the large states, such as New York, which were viewed as the keys to presidential elections. One amendment called for the electoral votes of each state to be divided among candidates, in proportion to the popular vote that they received (similar to the proposal now on the ballot in Colorado). Another would have distributed a state's electoral votes among its congressional districts (much as Maine and Nebraska do now).

Amendments calling for a direct popular vote had also been introduced as early as 1816, but for most of our history such proposals were doomed by a stark political reality: The South would never accept them. The issue was not small states versus big states but slavery and racial discrimination.

Before the Civil War, the "three-fifths compromise" in the Constitution meant that slaves counted (as three-fifths of a person) towards a state's representation in Congress and thus in the Electoral College. Had the president been elected by a popular vote, Southern influence would have shrunk sharply, limited to the number of votes actually cast.

This system operated even more perniciously during the Jim Crow era (extending into the 1960s), when the white South benefited from what could be called the "five fifths" clause: African Americans counted fully towards representation in Congress and the Electoral College, but they still could not vote. The number of votes actually cast in the South between 1900 and 1960 was tiny in comparison to the size of its electoral vote. A popular election for president, thus, would have dramatically reduced the political power of the South while creating pressure for Southern states to expand the franchise.

Yet the landscape of racial exclusion was shifting in the 1960s, in ways that opened the door to electoral reform. The 24th Amendment banning poll taxes (1964), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a series of Supreme Court decisions led to the enfranchisement of African Americans in the South and to more uniform suffrage requirements throughout the nation. In addition, the Supreme Court embraced the principle of "one person, one vote," insisting that legislative districts be roughly equal in size. Having a vote be "worth more in one district than in another," the court declared in 1964, violated "our fundamental ideas of democratic government."   Continued...

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