Electoral college: quaint and dangerous

Every four years Americans develop a mild, brief interest in the archaic electoral college. Today we have modified the original system to employ popular vote. It is interesting to compare sample products of the two systems. The first five presidents, using the electoral college alone, were Washington, Adams , Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Our latest five presidents have been Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. How do the two sets compare? It is more tactful perhaps to quote Lord Bryce, who wrote a famous chapter in his classic, "The American Commonweatlh," printed at the turn of the century, entitled, "Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President." He asserted, "The ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity . . . He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and above all, what he calls 'magnetic,' and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture, or a wide knowledge."

Is this a patronizing indictment? Voters will decide that, perhaps, in weighing the choice given them in recent years, but Lord Bryce, of course, was writing from familiarity with the cabinet system of government in which voters vote for parties and the parties select their own leaders -- prime minister or head of the opposition. The American voter votes directly for the presidential candidate, not the party. (Parties have tended to decline in prestige).

Here in Washington the American Enterprise Institute invited reporters to a session this week to brush up on the electoral college and particularly to consider what happens if there is no constitutional majority of electors Novtion to the House. Such a thing has happened only twice (1800, Thomas Jefferson; 1824, John Quincy Adams) but it is always a possibility. It seems remote this year because independent candidate John Anderson does not seem likely to split off any electoral college delegates.

The Founding Fathers at the Philadelphia convention of 1787 had more debate on how to pick a president than any other subject. They were afraid of a king. They thought they had fixed it up with the last moment compromise of the electoral college, a deliberative body of men of independent judgment named by the states and protecting the high office from an unworthy figure. What happened was that a congressional caucus developed, involving groups of congressmen, with a symbiotic relationship with the electoral college.

Says the Constitution (Art. 2, Sect. 1): "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof shall direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress: but no senator or representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector."

That is the written Constitution, but it has been amended by the unwritten constitution. Some think the electoral college should be formally dropped. The prestigious American Bar Association through a special Commission on Electoral College Reform in 1967 called it a positive danger. The 15-member commission found it "archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous." It noted that a person might become president who had fewer popular votes than his major opponent; it criticized the winner- take-all system in the states which cancels out all minority votes. It urged a constitutional amendment for "direct, nationwide popular vote."

That was four elections ago and we still operate under the old system with the chance, always, that in a close contest the whole business will be thrown into the House.

I expect there will be a period of discussion once again of the subject. Militant speakers will spring to the defense of the hoary old system -- the only one of its kind in the world. Will there be a change? I rather doubt it. We shall be hearing the same arguments again, I imagine, in 1984.

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