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Tales from the Morgue: Mo Udall on the Electoral College

Tales from the Morgue: Mo Udall on the Electoral College

Tales from the Morgue

Since this was written in 1968, in 2000 and 2016 a president was elected even though he lost the popular vote.

In 1800 and 1824 the election of the president was decided in the House of Representatives.

The following ran in the Arizona Daily Star Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1968:

Opinion by Morris K. Udall

Electoral College Peril

Editor's note: The following much-abbreviated article by Arizona's second district congressman is published so that readers may understand more clearly the electoral situation facing the nation this year and what can be done about it

Our U.S. Constitution is a simple and magnificent document on which a free and powerful society has been erected. But that Constitution contains a kind of political "time bomb" which ticks rather loudly right now. It may go off in the early hours of November 6 in an explosion which could produce the gravest kind of divisions and uncertainties for our country.

It's too late to completely defuse this bomb for 1968, but we ought to know its dangers, and we ought to take some makeshift action to minimize the damage to the Republic. Between now and 1972 we ought to make permanent corrections so it can never happen again.

I'm talking, of course, about the Electoral College, a unique American device by which we make our most important political choice: who shall be our president.

Historians tell us that the method by which a president was to be chosen was one of the most disputed matters at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Various schemes were proposed and debated. Like so many things in the Constitution the Electoral College was a compromise blend of many suggestions.

Therefore they devised an indirect, two state election process (in which voters vote for electors, not directly for a president and vice president.)

So what does all of the have to do with you and me and George Wallace, Humphrey and Nixon? Let me give you a possible "scenario":

It's Wednesday morning, November 6, 1968. The election is over. You switch on the TV to find out the name of your new president. Who won? A haggard Chet Huntley gives you the answer: "No body!" But surely we'll know later in the day, you think. No, you won't. You might know on December 16 (if George Wallace can make a "deal", or as he terms it, a "covenant") before the Electoral College meets on that day. Or, if that doesn't come off, you might know on January 6, when the Congress meets. But that might depend on some cloakroom bargaining, or on the outcome of some closely-contested congressional seat in Oregon or North Carolina.

"But," you say, "the man with the most votes was election as my governor and senator. I thought the man with the most votes would be president." The answer: Not necessarily! In 1876 Samuel Tilden received 250,000 more votes than Rutherford Hayes. The people voted for Tilden: the Electoral College voted for Hayes. Hayes was president.

Thus it did happen in 1876. It nearly happened in 1948 and 1960. It could happen in 1968 . . .

Despite all the dangers and difficulties our presidential elections are usually decided by sufficient margins that the popular choice is elected. But "usually" isn't good enough! We've had some close calls and a few instances where the majority will was thwarted . . . (For example) In 1960 a switch of 8,900 votes from Kennedy to Nixon in Illinois and Missouri would have thrown the election into the House. One unfaithful Oklahoma elector, publicly pledged to Nixon, sought a secret deal by which he and other GOP electors would join with uncommitted Southern electors to cote for Sen. Harry Byrd.

Will history merely add 1968 to the list of "close calls", or will the world's most powerful nation really have its luck run out this time? Let's do some supposing to see just how real the danger is:

─ Suppose George Wallace carries the five Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia) which went for Goldwater in 1964.

─ Of the other states, Nixon carries the ones he took in 1960.

─ Humphrey takes the rest: i.e, those which went for Kennedy in 1960 plus the District of Columbia (given the vote in 1961).

When the electors meet on December 16, with 270 votes needed to win (a majority of the 538), the result will be: Wallace 47, Nixon 229, Humphrey 262. Unless Wallace has made a "covenant" to put one or the other over the top in the Electoral College, or unless some electors renege on their public pledges, there is no winner.

Suppose the electors all stick to their pledged positions. Let's see what would happen. The election now goes to the House. A period of uncertainty will begin and will last until the House votes on January 6. As the new Congress gathers after New Year's Day (for it's the new and not the old Congress which votes for president), the maneuvering and the rumors reach a pitch. There are many uncertainties:

─ Remember each state gets one vote; Nevada with 460,000 people and one congressman casts one vote. So does New York with 41 congressmen and 18 million people.

─ In fact, in a contingent election in 1969, it is theoretically possible for 76 congressmen from 26 states representing 30 million people to elect a president, outvoting 24 states with 359 congressmen and 148 million people!

Further, it takes 26 states to win, and it sometimes happens that a state's congressional delegation is equally divided. Today Oregon has to Democrats and two Republicans; Montana is 1-1, Illinois 12-12. If each of these congressmen remained loyal to his party, these three deadlocked states would have no vote at all. And, of course, the District of Columbia, with no congressional delegation, would have no vote.

The possibilities for deadlock and temptations for backroom deals are clearly apparent.

This system is a ridiculous and outdated way to make our most vital political choice. In fact, I've only outlined a few of the many defects of the Electoral College system. The case against it (includes) "Winner-take-all". If you're one of the 237,000 Arizonans (49.5 per cent) who voted for LBJ in 1964, or one of the 2,800,000 Californians who voted for Goldwater, you might as well have stayed in bed. Your vote didn't count. The Electoral College gives all a state's electoral votes to the man who receives the most votes in that state. In 1960 Nixon received 3,259,000 votes in California (50.1 per cent), Kennedy 3,224,000 (49.6 per cent), but the electoral college counted it as a shutout: Nixon 32, Kennedy 0 . . .

In July, I co-sponsored with Charles Goodell, an outstanding Republican congressman from New York, the bipartisan Goodell-Udall plan to meet such an emergency. We have already been joined by more than 50 congressmen and congressional candidates, by prominent senators and other political leaders. The proposal has been endorsed "in principle" by Mr. Nixon and Vice-President Humphrey, and is supported by major newspapers, including The New York Times and Washington Post, and the Tucson daily Citizen, Arizona Daily Star and Arizona Republic in my own state.

Supporters of this plan come from both major parties, represent all different political candidates and many different political philosophies. But we are agreed on some fundamental points:

The new 37th president ─ the one official who speaks and acts with a mandate from all Americans ─ ought not to owe his election to any trade or bargain or deal or cloakroom maneuver. He ought to be that man who receives the most votes.

A minority presidency, or a "bargained" presidency, would be crippled and paralyzed before it began and throughout its four-year term. Our new president should be able to unite and lead our people without this kind of cloud over his head.

With vital decisions to be made between November 6 and the inauguration, Americans cannot afford to be in doubt for two months as to who will take office on January 20.

A political party ought not to be in a position to be tempted to use its accidental distribution of House states to elect a minority President and thus thwart the people's will.

There are some intricacies to the Goodell-Udall proposal, but its essence is simple: a "gentleman's agreement" that members of the House of Representatives of the 91st Congress, if required to elect a president, will vote for that candidate who receives the most popular votes in the nation . . .

Johanna Eubank is a digital producer for the Arizona Daily Star and She has been with the Star in various capacities since 1991. Contact her at

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Johanna Eubank is a digital producer for the Arizona Daily Star and She has been with the Star in various capacities since 1991.

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