Overthrowing the Electoral College: The Margaret Chase Smith and Edmund Muskie experience

8 mins read
Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

By Paul Mills

With even Donald Trump sometimes advocating electoral college reform, it’s likely that this school’s accreditation may be seriously challenged when Congress matriculates next year.

It’s now well known that Maine stands out in the present system for being the only state this year expected to split its electoral votes, something not done any place since Nebraska did so eight years ago even though it was once a more common phenomenon in the nation’s early history. (Maine did so, for example, in 1828.)

What’s not so well known is the role that both our U.S. senators in the 1960s and early ’70s, Margaret Chase Smith and Edmund Muskie, played championing the most significant effort ever to overthrow the system. In 1969, with bipartisan support including the backing of newly-elected President Richard Nixon, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 338 to 70 to pass a constitutional amendment shutting down the electoral college and substituting a nationwide popular vote.

The next year, a majority of U.S. senators also supported the plan but it failed to muster the two-thirds vote required to cut off a filibustering opposition.

Nevertheless, voting on what was then known as the Bayh Celler or “Celler” bill was the closest the United States has ever come to enacting a popular vote system.

Interest at this time was triggered by the wrenching 1968 election, the last time any third party presidential candidate won votes in the electoral college. By carrying electoral votes of five states Alabama’s George Wallace’s strength pointed up a potential malfunctioning of the system. That’s because by posing the threat of depriving the two major nominees, Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, of a majority of electoral college votes, he exposed an obscure but ominous quirk in the way such elections are required to be handled. In such an instance, the House of Representatives, with each state entitled to cast only a single vote, would choose the president. The senate would then choose the vice president. It’s a process that was seen as not only less democratic than the electoral college but also posed the potential of choosing a president and vice president who might be diametrically incompatible.

Against this backdrop both of Maine’s U.S. senators were prominent advocates of revamping the system. The state’s senior senator, Republican Margaret Chase Smith had already for many years been proposing a popular vote election. Though she supported the Celler amendment, her own bill would have gone a step further by doing away with the political convention and caucus system and instead substituting a national primary as the means by which nominees are chosen. Moreover, her proposal included a requirement of run-offs whenever either a primary or general election failed to give a winning candidate a majority. (Though the Celler bill did not require a national primary it would have required run-offs any time a general election candidate failed to capture even 40 percent of the vote.)

Smith’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Edmund Muskie, who had in the 1968 election been Humphrey’s vice-presidential running mate, also ardently supported a popular vote system. In his 1969 remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee Muskie called attention to the faithless North Carolina elector who had just voted for George Wallace instead of the state’s popular vote winner, Richard Nixon. He also recited the 1960 actions of some electors from Alabama and Oklahoma to hijack the process in attempting to prevail upon their colleagues to withhold votes from John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This was an attempt to extract concessions from them favorable to conservative causes as a condition for their support.

Muskie also asserted that the electoral college failed to take into consideration the evolution of America from a country of separate, sovereign states into a cohesive national government and then went on to observe that “The President seeks and derives his support from the nation as a whole, not from one state at a time.”

What’s indeed a bit remarkable about the advocacy of both of Maine’s U.S. senators then is that it was likely against the narrower interests of their own constituents. Because even small states like Maine have a guaranteed threshold of electoral votes the state for more than a century had a proportionately greater clout in presidential elections than it would have under a direct election. Today, for example, it’s unlikely that Donald Trump would have campaigned five times here had it not been for our skewed influence.

There are also broader policy implications for Maine’s place at the national bargaining table. The difference in voting power between Maine and California being even more pronounced than it was a half century ago is probably a reason we have not seen our more recent emissaries to Washington push for the changes Smith and Muskie once advocated though even in their time there was a similar risk. Maine senators who vote for a straight popular vote system might thus be accused of throwing Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Kittery under the bus.

It’s perhaps a tribute to the stature and influence of both Smith and Muskie or for that matter Maine’s own attributes as a state that neither perceived the prospect of losing the benefits of federal investments in the state as a consideration in their support of a system that might blunt the state’s leverage.

The outcome of the today’s proposals is of course a bit problematic even if they do win the renewed support of a President Trump, but it is intriguing that those pursuing them will be walking in footsteps that have somewhat unlikely origins in a state the size of Maine.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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