SOUTH BEND – Former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, author of the 25th Amendment on presidential disability, an amendment now in the news, almost brought about another constitutional change that would have abolished the Electoral College. What a difference that would have made.

“In the future, the American people – rather than the faceless, undemocratic Electoral College – should choose the two highest officials in this land,” said Bayh back in 1977 as he spoke at a Senate hearing on his proposed amendment to provide for the direct popular election of the president and vice president.

There was bipartisan support then. Bayh, a Democrat who came close at times in over a decade of trying to get the two-thirds vote in the Senate needed to send the proposal on for ratification by the states, had the backing then of such prominent Republicans as Bob Dole and Howard Baker.

But filibusters or the threat thereof, mostly by senators from small states and in particular southern states wanting to keep clout in the Electoral College, always halted the proposed amendment.

Some Democrats, including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in his candidacy for the party’s presidential nomination, now urge another try to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote. Buttigieg notes that Bayh came close, a sign that it’s possible.

Chances of a bipartisan effort now, however, are remote. The reason is that the danger Bayh warned of in 1977 – “electoral roulette” bringing election of a president who actually lost in the total popular vote – has happened twice since then.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won by more than a half-million votes over Republican George W. Bush in nationwide voting, but Bush won the presidency in the Electoral College when Florida was found in a Supreme Court decision to have gone his way. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won more than five times bigger than Gore had in the popular vote, by 2,868,686 votes over Republican Donald Trump. As we know, Trump won “huge” in the Electoral College.

So, since that “electoral roulette” has spun twice in favor of a Republican, what are the chances of Republicans in Congress now joining in a bipartisan two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to send repeal of the Electoral College on to the states for ratification?

The reason for bipartisan support back when Bayh almost pushed through his amendment was that nobody knew then which party might win the most votes and still lose in the Electoral College, where each state has a number of electors equal to members in its congressional delegation.

After all, it had looked in 1960 as though Republican Richard Nixon might get the most votes and still lose to Democrat John Kennedy. Nixon finally fell short by just 112,827 votes nationally. So, Kennedy just barely won in both the popular vote and with electors.

Before the Electoral College became so defined now as a Republican institution, Donald Trump in 2012 labeled it as “a disaster for democracy.” Trump mistakenly thought it would lead to President Barack Obama winning reelection unfairly in the Electoral College. The theory was that black voters would swing enough support to Obama in some big states to enable him to win, even though a vast majority of American voters had turned against him.

Partisan political advantages aside, one of the most persuasive reasons to abandon the Electoral College is that if no presidential candidate gets a majority of the electors, selection of the president goes to the House of Representatives. And each state has one vote.

A strong independent candidate winning a state or two could send the selection to the House in an era of crumbling congressional approval. Electoral roulette? That would be Russian roulette, playing with a gun pointed at democracy. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.