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The Electoral College: Does It Choose The Best Man?
It nearly Put Burr in the saddle in 1800 It failed to confirm the people’s choice in 1824, 1876, and 1888 It could have ditched Kennedy in 1960
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
But what about the substantial number of votes for the opposing candidate in the large state? In Illinois in the 1960 election, out of four and three quarter million votes, Mr. Kennedy received only 8,858 more than Mr. Nixon. Yet this infinitesimal plurality (it could have been only one, rather than 8,858) sufficed to “appoint” Mr. Kennedy’s twenty-seven Electors. Two and a third million voters, it is sometimes argued, were thus in effect disfranchised. In reply, others hold that this is the fate of any minority, however large, in a democracy. But there is a rebuttal: the office at stake was not a state office. The President is the Chief Magistrate for all the people of the nation, wherever they may be. These more than two million votes for Mr. Nixon outweighed the Kennedy votes in half-adozen other states; would not justice demand that they be put in the balance?
Nor does it satisfactorily solve the problem to point out that for his part Mr. Nixon carried California’s thirty-two electoral votes by a margin also calculable only in fractions of a percentage point. If chance must be relied on to offset inequities by counterbalancing inequities on the other side, chance may equally be counted on to heap all or most of them on one side. We might as well flip a coin, or choose our Presidents by lot (a proposal several times seriously made, and once endorsed by Chief Justice John Marshall).
Choice by lot is one of the quainter alternatives among a thousand or more proposals offered to our eighty-seven Congresses. The most seriously regarded systems fall generally into three main classes: i) direct election of the Executive by the people at large, without regard to state lines; 2) election of the Electors by congressional districts, with two at large, in each state; 3) abolition of Electors and distribution of each state’s electoral votes among the candidates in proportion to their respective shares of the state’s popular vote.
Even the most ardent supporters of the first plan begin to despair of persuading small states (or large ones) to surrender the peculiar advantages they now enjoy. The third proposal has come closest to adoption in recent years. As the Lodge-Gosset amendment, it passed the Senate in 1950 with the required two-thirds majority, then died in the House. It was revived in 1956 by Senator Price Daniel of Texas with the impressive sponsorship of fifty-two other senators. To get it to the floor, he was forced in committee to accept a compromise proposal to let state legislatures, if they wished, adopt instead the congressional-district system.
How would each of these proposed systems have affected the outcome of the 1060 election?
If the Lodge-Gosset amendment had passed and been ratified by enough states in time for the 1960 election, the votes cast in that election, tallied by the new formula, would have given Kennedy only 266.070 electoral votes—three short of the absolute majority now required, but well above the forty per cent fixed as necessary for election in that amendment as ultimately refined. Nixon would have had 263.626. (Byrd would have received 3.118 and Faubus 2.756.)
But the hypothesis contains its own possible invalidation. In certain one-party states, large numbers of opposition voters are known not to exert themselves to cast hopeless ballots, since the dominant party wins all the electoral votes in the state anyway. An end to the winner-take-all system might end the apathy. Although this would also affect Democratic voters in heavily Republican states, the “lost” G.O.P. vote may be larger. Nixon might have gotten the three additional electoral votes he needed to beat Kennedy.
Had the 1960 votes been tallied by the second system, election of the Electors by the then-existing congressional districts, a device whose latest exponent has been Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota, Nixon would have won resoundingly: 279 to 244 (14 unpledged, but of no consequence since they could not affect the outcome). But the Mundt plan calls for division of each state into electoral districts of similar size with respect to population. This requirement would inhibit gerrymandering even more effectively than the recent federal court rulings on apportionment; we are again thrown back on speculation for the possible outcome.
The least probable of the current proposals—direct election of the President by the voters without regard to geographical boundaries—if applied to the 1960 figures would have given Mr. Kennedy the Presidency by 118,550 votes out of nearly 69 million.
Which system would have been the best gamble for the Democrats, if they had been able to make a choice before the 1960 election? Certainly the method of direct election looked dangerous: it was widely predicted that the popular vote would be very close. Assuming that no considerable number of Electors would depart from tradition and ignore the popular choice in their states, the old system of the Electoral College no doubt looked safest to the Kennedy camp, although as Election Day drew near it became ominously clear that at least some southern Electors would indeed disregard the tradition. The Lodge-Gosset system, despite its built-in advantages for the Republicans in the “solid south,” at least would have protected the Democrats against the whims and vagaries of defecting Electors in the same region.