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Recent Proposals to Reform the Electoral College System

  • Joseph E. Kallenbach (a1)


Since the 1932 election, developments have occurred which indicate a growing disposition to simplify the presidential election ballot and suggest that a revision of the mode of electing the chief executive may be eventually realized through constitutional amendment. The so-called “presidential short ballot” reform, which was first adopted in Nebraska in 1917, has moved forward rapidly in recent years. Sixteen states now have enacted statutes eliminating the names of presidential electors from the general election ballot, thus permitting their voters to choose electors by indicating a preference only for a party's presidential candidates.



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1 The evolution of the presidential short ballot is described by Aylsworth, L. E. in “The Presidential Ballot,” in this Review, Vol. 17, pp. 8996 (Feb., 1923), and “The Presidential Short Ballot,” ibid., Vol. 24, pp. 966–970 (Nov., 1930).

2 Nebraska, Compiled Statutes (1929), sec. 32–220; Iowa, Iowa Code (1931), ch. 40, sec. 750; ch. 45, sec. 964; Michigan, Compiled Laws (1929), secs. 3245–3249; Wisconsin, Statutes (1931), ch. 6, sec. 6.23; Illinois, Revised Statutes (1935), ch. 46, sec. 1; Ohio, Page's Annotated General Code (1935 Supplement), sec. 4785–107; Pennsylvania, Purdon's Pennsylvania Statutes Annotated (1935 Supplement to Title 25), ch. 8, sec. 1727; North Carolina, Code of 1931 (1933 Supplement), sec. 6010; Indiana, Burns' Indiana Statutes (1933), VII, ch. 1, sec. 29–112; Missouri, Laws (1933), p. 225; Massachusetts, Annotated Laws (1933), II, ch. 54, sec. 43; Connecticut, General Statutes (Cumulative Supplement, 1935), sec. 165c; Washington, Laws (1935), ch. 20, sec. 1.

In addition to the foregoing states which have eliminated electors' names on all presidential ballots, three states have provided for their elimination only on voting machine ballots, and require provision of facilities for splitting the electoral ballot if the voter so desires. These states are New York, McKinney's Consolidated Laws Annotated, Bk. 17, secs. 107, 260, note, 1936 Supplement; Alabama, , General Acts (1935), no. 282, sec. 17; Rhode Island, Acts and Resolves (1935), ch. 2195, sec. 4. The validity of this action in New York was sustained by the supreme court of Kings county in Thomas v. Cohen, 146 Misc. 836 (1933), 262 N.Y.S. 320; see also Gerling v. Nichols, 123 Misc. 811 (1924), 206 N.Y.S. 191.

3 House Report 2194, 72nd Cong., 2nd Sess.; House Report 262, 73rd Cong., 2nd Sess.

4 S. J. Res. 29. See Congressional Record, 73rd Cong., 2nd Sess., pp. 8935ff. 9125ff, 9240ff.

5 S. J. Res. 40, 73rd Congress.

6 The proportional electoral vote idea was first formally presented to Congress in an amendment resolution introduced by Representative Lawrence of New York in 1848, and has been included in many others since that time. See Ames, H. V., Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States During the First Century of Its History, p. 95ff; also Dougherty, J. H., The Electoral System of the United States, p. 364ff; House Report 2439, 52nd Cong., 2nd Sess.

7 The House reports noted above contain much illuminating material relating to the functioning of the electoral system in the 1932 election. Statistics are given revealing that popular participation varied from 6 voters per hundred persons in South Carolina to 48.6 voters per hundred in Indiana, with an average for the country at large of 32.4. To illustrate the working of the proportional vote system, a table applying this method to the 1932 election results showed that Roosevelt would have received 324.66 electoral votes, Hoover 187.32, and Thomas 6.81—a much fairer representation of the relative strength of these candidates than the 472 for Roosevelt and 59 for Hoover actually recorded.

8 In Georgia, to be elected by popular action, electors must receive a majority of the popular vote. In case of failure to do so, the legislature chooses them. Georgia Code (1933), ch. 34, secs. 2502–2504.

9 When introduced, the Norris resolution (S. J. Res. 29) included the proportional electoral vote idea, but during committee consideration this feature was eliminated. In explaining this action to the Senate, Senator Norris stated that while he still considered the proportional vote idea to be the ideal solution of the problem, he had become convinced of its impracticability. Congressional Record, 73rd Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 8937. Further changes were made in the original plan during consideration, the most important of which was the elimination of a provision that 35 per cent of the electoral vote should be sufficient to elect, rather than a majority. Ibid., p. 9125.

10 See comments of Senator Tydings, ibid., pp. 8936–8938.

11 Senators Vandenburg, Fess, and Steiwer in particular emphasized this point. Ibid, pp. 8944–8951, 9241. A clause in the resolution expressly stated that “the laws of the state providing for the placing of names of candidates for the office of chief executive of such state, including the names of independent candidates, upon the official ballot, if any is provided by the law of the state, shall apply to the names of candidates, including independent candidates, for the office of president and vice-president.” The difficulty experienced by the new Union party in perfecting the necessary organization to present slates of electors in the various states illustrates the disadvantages under which a new party labors by reason of the present electoral system.

12 The inclusion in the Norris plan originally of the rule that 35 per cent of the electoral vote should elect was apparently indicative of the belief of the sponsor that electoral votes would be more widely distributed among candidates. He did not insist on retention of this feature, however, possibly because he felt that election by the House would be rendered more effective than heretofore as a threat against regular party organizations if the majority vote rule were retained.

13 The vote was 42 to 24 in favor of passage. On motion to reconsider, it was 52 to 29. On the latter vote, 40 Democratic senators, 11 Republicans, and one Farmer-Laborite supported the resolution by voting to reconsider, and 9 Democrats and 20 Republicans opposed it. Ibid., pp. 9127, 9245.

14 It is interesting to observe that the district vote feature was made mandatory in a proposed Twelfth Amendment in 1802 which failed of passage in the Senate by only one vote after approval by the House. This provision was included in proposals which passed the Senate on four occasions between 1812 and 1824, one of which proposals failed in 1820 to receive a two-thirds majority in the House by a margin of only five votes. Ames, op. cit., pp. 81, 84.

Recent Proposals to Reform the Electoral College System

  • Joseph E. Kallenbach (a1)


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