Look quick or it will be gone before you notice it! One of the curiosities of the United States governmental system is in the limelight only during presidential elections: It's the Electoral College. You think you vote for a president? No, you vote for electors in a presidential college. It was a device taken 200 years ago to protect states' rights, but is it needed now?
''The Electoral College method of electing a President of the United States, '' said a blue-ribbon commission of the American Bar Association in 1967, ''is archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect and dangerous.'' But we keep it nevertheless (although it has defenders). Some critics think it is a stick of dynamite ready to go off.
They weren't sure about ''democracy'' back in the days of Constitution-writing: ''The people,'' said Roger Sherman, ''should have as little to do as may be about the government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.''
Other critics ask about the ''college.'' British observer James Bryce in his classic ''The American Commonwealth'' thought the system put too much emphasis on finding candidates who could win elections rather than on selecting those who could govern the country afterward. What good did it do, he asked, for throngs to go around chanting, ''Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, We don't care a bit for the rain?''
Perhaps a foreigner couldn't understand the excitement. At any rate, the system as noted is extremely complex, involving primary elections, conventions that are often chaotic, and, after the voting, the Electoral College. Canada went through its recent election in 60 days. In the US, by contrast, presidential candidates prepare for years: It is reported that Sen. Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee, who is retiring from the Senate, may carry on a four-year presidential campaign, aimed at 1988. In effect that's what Jimmy Carter did.
On the day of actual polling only about half the voters normally vote. Perhaps something should be done to shorten and sharpen the system.
Here are the declining percentages of voting-age population who voted for president in recent years, along with the winning candidate: 1960 (Kennedy), 62. 8 percent; 1964 (Johnson), 61.9; 1968 (Nixon), 60.9; 1972 (Nixon), 55.4; 1976 (Carter), 54.4; 1980 (Reagan) 52.6.
One problem is that the public thinks about the Electoral College only for a few weeks every four years. In November 1980, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of the American people favored the direct election of the president, 19 percent opposed it, and 14 percent were undecided. And a number of people knew nothing about the system. They thought they were to vote directly for the candidates. On the contrary, the votes are for ''electors,'' who in turn assemble at state capitols and cast their ballots on a winner-take-all basis for each state's electoral votes for the actual candidates. If one more voter, say in New York, favored Mr. Reagan over Mr. Mondale, all 41 of the state's electoral votes would go for the former. (Later all electors assemble in Washington for a coronation-type ceremony.) Hence, the winner is not automatically the one with the most popular votes. Article, II Section 2 of the Constitution says, ''Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress....''
This year there is no important third-party candidate to complicate things. But in the past there have been opportunities for hair-raising deals and bargains.
Nonvoting has become common for Americans, and it could be a threat to government's legitimacy. Nonvoters are renouncing the ultimate control of government and letting politics become a spectator sport. Critics of the Electoral College system say it contributes to malaise. In 1977 President Carter introduced a four-part reform package; it failed. Meanwhile, the government does not have a national program to register voters and make their task easy. Canada gives elaborate help to the voter. ''Ours is the only democratic country where a person is left to fend for himself in finding out how to register and to figure out the complicated laws governing the electoral process,'' said the New York Times in a 1980 editorial.
It is the story of the leaky roof. When the sun shines we are dry. When it rains it is too late. We may not always have as equable weather as we do in 1984 .