This commentary is from Travis Jacobs, Emeritus Professor of American History at Middlebury College.
In 1968, 52 years before President Donald Trump’s controversial attempts to overturn duly elected presidential voters, Vermont Congressman Robert T. Stafford wanted to abolish the Electoral College.
Trump and his supporters wanted acceptance of an alternative voters list or rejection of voters they had challenged in a number of states. Then, in the House of Representatives, each state would have one vote for the new president, and the Republicans would win.
What prompted Stafford, a Republican and former governor who was seeking his fifth term in the House, to propose the election of the president by universal suffrage? What had happened?
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Stafford had feared that Alabama segregationist George Wallace’s third party would deprive one or other of the leading candidates of a majority of electoral votes, thus returning the election to the House of Representatives. After Nixon’s inauguration in January 1969, Stafford wrote with a sense of relief to his constituents: “Once again we have witnessed one of the true marvels of modern government, the orderly and peaceful transition of an administration to another.
This “remarkable event,” he added, “should bring a sense of pride to all Americans” after the troubles and violence of 1968.
As the Vietnam War dragged on in early 1968, the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive shocked Americans. Soon, Minnesota Congressman Eugene McCarthy announced he would challenge President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Johnson won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, and soon New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of martyr John F. Kennedy, entered the race. Weeks later, Johnson stunned Americans when he announced he would not run again. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey became the party’s leading candidate for the nomination; he was, however, considered the heir apparent to Johnson’s Vietnam policy.
Four days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated and 130 cities across America were burned down. In early June, Kennedy, campaigning in Los Angeles, was assassinated. Stafford told the House, “Senator Kennedy was in touch with the young people of our nation. … He was confident in their ability to help America reach new heights.
He told St. Joseph’s College graduates they had the “right to question the policies set by your elders.”
That spring and summer, many viewed former Vice President Richard Nixon – the presumptive Republican nominee – as a war hawk and a staunch defender of law and order who would not address the evils of the nation. His policies concerned Stafford, a staunch civil rights supporter, and after two visits to Vietnam he was no longer a war hawk; he could understand the concern, especially since his twin daughters had graduated from high school.
Meanwhile, former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s main challenger, dropped out and then re-entered the race. As the Republican National Convention approached, Stafford agreed to serve as floor manager for Rockefeller, but Nixon’s forces would prevail and appoint Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as vice president.
Then, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violent protesters in the streets overshadowed, if not disrupted, the nominating process. Humphrey, nonetheless, received the nomination, but his party was in shambles.
That summer, Stafford had had another grave concern: the potential danger posed by George Wallace’s third party. The former Alabama governor, rallying voters opposed to Great Society civil rights legislation, has promised a strong race.
Stafford feared that Wallace might not win enough states in the South to prevent either leading candidate from receiving a majority in the Electoral College. In this case, the election would go to the House of Representatives, where each state would have a single vote. Wallace may well have enough electoral votes to secure concessions for his program from one of the leading candidates.
Stafford joined in the creation of a popular bipartisan Presidential Committee of a dozen House members to prevent this from happening and “ensure that all members of the next House commit themselves in writing to vote only for the candidate who obtains the plurality in the November elections. .” Stafford, “favorably impressed” by the “stop Wallace” plan, said, “I don’t think anyone should be in a position to negotiate the election of a president.” The Rutland Herald noted that former Democratic and Republican national presidents endorsed the plan, but Senator George Aiken did not. He thought the support for Wallace was overdone.
Neither Stafford nor Aiken opposed re-election in November, and major state newspapers did not bother to provide vote counts the next day. In Burlington, each had more write-in Democratic votes than regular Republican votes — an impressive performance in the Democratic stronghold.
Stafford, however, had rightly worried about the national election and the possibility that Wallace, with a strong performance, could prevent an electoral majority. The contest was too close to call election night. Nixon received only 43.4% of the popular vote, only 511,944 votes more than Humphrey’s 42.7%, while Wallace had 13.5%.
Nixon, however, had a majority in the Electoral College with 301.
Humphrey had surged in October and won more after Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, but he had just 191 electoral votes. Wallace had 46 in five Southern states, and he got votes from Humphrey in the North and Midwest, even though he had been politically embarrassed by his running mate, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who proposed to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
Still, Wallace and Humphrey only needed 32 more electoral votes to send the election to the House. And, underscoring the closeness, for the first time since the Civil War, a newly elected president had won neither the House nor the Senate.
“Nearly everyone I spoke with,” Stafford wrote, “agreed on the need to change our election laws,” and he said he would work for reform in Congress in the coming year. Personally, he favored the abolition of the Electoral College and the “popular election of the president and vice-president as a team”. He also wanted “guarantee of the right to vote in a national election, consideration of lowering the voting age” and a full report of expenditures and revenues.
When the new Congress convened, Stafford and other representatives introduced legislation endorsing “the popular election of President and Vice President.” Soon, the House Judiciary Committee was considering proposals for electoral reform, and in late April voted 28 to 6 to submit to the House a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College.
In September, the House, by a bipartisan vote of 339 to 70, sent the proposed Constitution to the Senate; President Nixon endorsed it and requested Senate passage. In 1970, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the proposed amendment, but a filibuster led by several Southern senators killed it.
This electoral reform effort, which Stafford had discussed in 1968 with his Vermont constituents, still remains the closest attempt to abolish the Electoral College.