Citizens or Congress: Who should elect the president?

ON May 11 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went down the street to Buckingham Palace and asked Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament and set the date of June 11 for the next British general election. That means that Britain's election campaign will last just one month.

The next American general election is set by the calendar and must come in November 1988. The campaign is already well along, having already destroyed the hopes of one ``front-runner'' named Gary Hart (remember?).

American election campaigns last for two years because they start from the last previous mid-term election, also set by the calendar. We, the American voters of 1988, are already weary of the parading of the alleged virtues, or vices, of various possible candidates. We have to endure it for 18 more months.

To spend 18 more months finding the next president is a method so tedious, and expensive, that other countries think Americans must either be mad, or gluttons for political punishment.

The main reason the American process takes so long and is so expensive is because it has evolved into the direct popular election of president and vice-president. To get elected a candidate must persuade a majority of the individual voters of the entire country of his, or her, virtues. This takes time, and money - a lot of both.

This was not the intention of the Founding Fathers who wrote the United States Constitution. They expected each state legislature to appoint ``in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct'' a panel of electors. These electors would then vote for two candidates ``of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same State.'' The choices of all electors from all states would be tabulated. The person with a clear majority would be president. The runner up would be vice-president.

The electors, in theory, would be better informed than ordinary citizens to judge the merits of candidates. The Founding Fathers did not expect the rank and file of voters to know enough about individual candidates to be able to select wisely and prudently the one most qualified to be president.

In other words the framers of the Constitution did not believe in direct, popular election of presidents and vice-presidents. Nor does any country enjoying the parliamentary system. No one in Britain will be voting on June 11 for Mrs. Thatcher as prime minister. Her own constituency will be voting to send her back to Parliament as their own representative. The fact that she is the leader of her party in Parliament is due to her colleagues in Parliament - not to the voters at large.

That is the big difference. A prime minister is chosen in the legislature by the people who have worked with him or her in the legislature. The chosen have been tested over years in that assembly. They are selected according to proven ability to make wise decisions and lead others in arriving at decisions. They are trained in government.

American candidates get selected not because of proven competence in the legislative process, but by displaying acting ability on television. The process may turn up a fine president. It can also turn up a president substantially unqualified for governing.

Changing the US Constitution is difficult, but not impossible. So far, it has been amended 26 times. As a practical matter the US is not going over to the parliamentary system. That would be too radical to be realistically achievable, no matter how desirable such a change might be.

However, Americans could keep their present separation of powers, four-year term, a limit of two terms, and most other features of the existing system and still change the method of selecting the president from direct to indirect.

Who is best qualified to know the person, or type of person, who would be most likely to make a good president? Obviously, members of Congress. The change could be done in various ways. One way would be to let the House select a panel of five or six names and then let the Senate select from that panel. The simplest way, and the one nearest the original intent of the framers, would be by a vote of the entire Congress, House and Senate joined together for this purpose.

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