By Bill Minor
Twice during the 20th century Mississippi’s political leadership – the Dixiecrats in 1948 and Ross Barnett in 1960 – tried to pool Southern states’ presidential electors in the “electoral college” as a weapon to block election of Democratic presidents.
Both times they failed. Somewhat surprisingly, the flame to tinker with the old presidential elector system has reemerged elsewhere in the nation, and now with a different regional twist, mostly reflecting discontent with presidential elections being decided by a handful of battleground states.
The beef of the Dixiecrats and Barnett’s unpledged electors was grounded on opposition to the Democratic Party’s swing to the left and support of civil rights laws that were anathema to the South. Ironically, while both the Dixiecrats and Ross’s Rogues denied their secret motive was to deliver the South to the Republican Party, in reality that’s what happened.
Some Republicans became greatly disturbed in the 2012 presidential election that their boy, Mitt Romney could win the popular vote nationally, but lose the presidency to Barack Obama in the electoral college. Neither happened as Obama swept to victory on both counts.
As school kids are taught in civics, under the U.S. Constitution, presidents and vice-presidents are not chosen by direct votes of citizens who go to the polls every four years but by “electors” allocated to each state.
The electoral vote of each state is equal to the total of the number of congressmen plus the state’s two Senators. In a winner-take-all, the state’s total electoral votes go to the party candidate who carries the statewide popular vote.
A number of serious-minded political leaders and scholars, including some noteworthy Democrats, have been studying the whole question of reforming the nation’s presidential election system to make certain the president is elected by a national popular vote.
So much so, a half dozen scholars, with input from 16 political and public figures, have produced a two-inch thick book, “Every Vote Equal” which makes a strong case for a state-based plan for electing presidents by national popular vote. In it, they dig into various states’ presidential elector systems, including Mississippi’s quirky unpledged elector law.
Names of presidential electors of different party tickets formerly appeared on Mississippi’s (and other states) ballot. That was particularly significant in the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt and Barnett’s 1960 Unpledged elector movement. Individuals whose names had some vote-drawing power were always selected by party conventions as the electors. In 1980, the “short ballot” was implemented and individual elector names no longer appeared on the ballot.
Unhappy Mississippi Democrats took over the 1944 state Democratic convention and secretly picked presidential electors who intended to vote for segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia and not Franklin Roosevelt in the electoral college. The plot was discovered after the November ballots had already been printed.
Just a week before the election, Gov. Thomas L. Bailey called the Legislature into special session and had lawmakers, under an obscure law, name a new set of electors loyal to Roosevelt. This so-called “pink ticket” was quickly distributed statewide by state highway patrolmen. The pink ticket carried the state and Mississippi’s eight electoral votes remained in FDR’s column. (Note: Because of population loss since the 1940s, Mississippi now has only six electoral votes.)
As the book points out, if a relatively small number of votes in one or two states were shifted to the other ticket, there would have been a different outcome of six presidential elections in the past six decades.
The controversial 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore of course lives in the memory of most Americans because Gore received some 500,000 more popular votes nationwide than Bush but lost the election in a split decision of the Supreme Court.
Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana in his endorsement of popular election of presidents, declared “it’s refreshing to know states have the ability under the Constitution to step up and create the sensible solution Americans have long been supporting.” Republican Rep. Laura Brod of Minnesota added her endorsement of the proposed National Popular Vote Bill, saying “it is not a Democratic or Republican bill” but reforms the “current winner-take-all system.”
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.