The faceless Electoral College

This is the season every four years when voters rediscover the Electoral College. They make the discovery reluctantly and, after the election is over, forget it as quickly as they can. A Gallup poll in 1980 disclosed that 67 percent of the people favor the direct election of the president, 19 percent oppose it, and 14 percent are undecided. But at this early point in the election process, probably a majority have forgotten all about the Electoral College.

There is always the chance that the 200-year-old requirements of the US Constitution won't be met. There are a couple of sticks of dynamite in the American presidential election system that could explode on the path to the White House.

You think you vote for a presidential candidate, perhaps? You don't; you vote for an anonymous, faceless member of an entity called the Electoral College. This system was written into the 1787 Constitution, amplified by the 12th Amendment and the extraconstitutional development of the two-party system.

How does it work? Suppose we have arrived at the end of election day next November. Around midnight the awed announcers say the computers predict there will be no majority - in the Electoral College, that is. States cast their Electoral College votes in blocks - winner take all in each state. The electors step in.

Each state is entitled to as many electors as it has US senators (two) and US representatives (at least one each). The electors go to their own state capitals to cast their vote for president and vice-president. If no candidate obtains a majority, the House of Representatives decides who is to be president from among the three people who received the most electoral votes (with each state delegation to the House entitled to one vote). And the Senate selects the vice-president. It is a queer, complicated arrangement.

For decades there has been agitation to replace this system with direct elections. But there's been no change: The present system works pretty well, with the only real threat coming when there is a third candidate.

Two political scientists from North Carolina have been arguing about the electoral system recently. One, Theodore S. Arrington, wants direct selection instead of the Electoral College. He recalls that President Carter introduced a reform package in March of 1977 which called for this. But the Senate didn't act. He thinks the Electoral College system is undemocratic, complicated, and dangerous. In 1948 Harry Truman beat Tom Dewey by more than 2.2 million popular votes, he recalls. Yet a shift of only 30,000 votes in Illinois, California, and Ohio would have made Dewey president - the fourth popularly rejected president in history. Or again, a switch of only 12,000 votes in five states would have rejected John F. Kennedy in 1960. And Gerald Ford would have been elected in 1976 with the switch of 5,558 popular votes in Ohio and 3,686 in Hawaii.

The present system has defenders, too. Prof. Saul Brenner, at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, marshaled their arguments the other day. A system of direct voting, he thinks, would encourage an unsatisfactory proliferation of third parties. Also, he says, ''The system of checks and balances established by the authors of the Constitution is based in part upon the expectation that different branches of the federal government will have different constituencies.''

He argues that voters in the larger states now benefit from the Electoral College (if it comes to a showdown) and that this compensates for their possible inequality in some other respects.

Congress seems reluctant to act, and someday a funny thing may happen on the way to the White House.

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