Birch Bayh tried for years to make every vote equal

Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) addresses a group of students, ca. 1970s. Photo courtesy of Senatorial Papers of Birch Bayh, Indiana University.

BLOOMINGTON - Democrat Hillary Clinton apparently won the most votes last week, but she didn't win the White House -- a contradiction that is renewing debate over the system of selecting a president that is baked into the U.S. Constitution.

Calls to abolish the Electoral College, which gives some states disproportionate influence, aren't new.

A half-century ago, an Indiana senator took up the cause of reforming how presidents are picked, only to be stymied by an array of forces that included segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond and the widow of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.

The fascinating details of Sen. Birch Bayh's quixotic attempt to reform, and later topple, the Electoral College are forever preserved in the archives of the Indiana University Libraries. They landed there 35 years ago, in some of the 1,200 boxes of senatorial papers donated by Bayh to his alma mater.

Archivist Kate Cruikshank has organized what was a jumble of material into a narrative of Bayh's 18-year Senate career.

"It's very unusual to find this much detail," she said of a mass of internal memos, staff correspondence and other material that offer a behind-the-scene look at Bayh's work.

The materials show Bayh's persistence -- a man, she said, "not likely to give up on anything." They include 2,600 pages of testimony offered in multiple hearings on Electoral College reform, organized by Bayh when he headed the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments.

Much of the testimony supported Bayh's belief that the institution created in 1787 as a compromise by populous northern states to appease slave-holding states of the South was an anachronism.

Under the system, voters cast ballots for electors who in turn choose the president. Each state is assigned a certain number of electors based on the size of its congressional delegation, which is tied to population.

"In the final analysis," Bayh would later write, "the most compelling reason for directly electing our president and vice president is one of principle. In the United States, every vote must count equally. One person, one vote is more than a clever phrase, it's the cornerstone of justice and equality."

That principle has been upended by the Electoral College four other times throughout history, when the candidate with the most votes didn't win the White House. The most recent was George W. Bush's victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

It also happened during the 1824 election of John Quincy Adams, the 1876 election of Rutherford Hayes, and again in 1888, when Hoosier Benjamin Harrison ousted the incumbent, Grover Cleveland.

Also in the Bayh archive are documents showing his alarm during the 1968 election in which Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a populist firebrand, was attempting to wreak havoc.

Wallace knew he couldn't win the popular vote, but he was hoping to win enough electoral votes to force the decision into the U.S. House of Representatives, where he saw some sympathy for his segregationist agenda. Republican Richard Nixon narrowly won the popular vote that year but handily won the Electoral College.

In the following session of Congress, Bayh again filed a resolution to begin the long process of abolishing the Electoral College with a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds votes in both house of Congress and ratification by 38 states.

Bayh had 40 co-sponsors in the Senate and a majority support in the House. But his resolution was bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Thurmond. The South Carolinian would be Bayh's nemesis on the issue for years to come, as the archival material shows.

Bayh's final push came in 1977, after Jimmy Carter won the presidency with the popular vote but a thin margin of electors. By then, Bayh had widespread public support but not enough votes to overcome Thurmond's filibuster.

In Bayh's papers is a document from the time -- a telegram from a group of black leaders addressed to Thurmond, later distributed to Bayh and others. It vehemently argues that abolishing the Electoral College would dilute the vote of minorities. The telegram was signed by Coretta Scott King, among others.

It was heartbreaking for the Indiana senator.

Bayh, now 88 and ailing, was unavailable to talk about the Electoral College after Republican Donald Trump won the White House last week despite Clinton's apparent victory in the popular vote. The outcome inspired a new effort to abolish the Electoral College, this time filed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

Bayh's papers show that he continued to argue for the abolition of the Electoral College until the end of his career.

His archive includes a talking-points memo on the perils of the system in a close election. It was written in late October 1980, as Bayh was preparing to be interviewed on national television.

A week later, he would lose his re-election bid. In the same election, Ronald Reagan would win the presidency with just under 51 percent of the popular vote, but 91 percent of the Electoral College.

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her a mhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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