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The cumbersome US election process

Here we are halfway through another presidential campaign. There is a routine in them. Soon the press will discover the dangers of the Electoral College. Back in 1976 a change of some 8,000 Ohio and Hawaii votes would have given the Electoral College votes of those states to Gerald Ford rather than to Jimmy Carter and made him president. Or, to vary it, if a New York judge had not ruled independent Eugene McCarthy off the ballot, Mr. Ford probably would have won the state's Electoral College votes and the election. But in either case Mr. Carter would have received some 2 million more popular votes in the overall vote.

No other democracy has a system as intricate as the United States. Like the US, other democracies have national elections to decide which of two parties has the most votes. But in most, the parliamentary members first pick the shadow cabinet and then decide who will be their leaders. In the US, voters participate in the series of state caucuses and primaries, just completed. It is a two-stage affair, and the next stage is the conventions.

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I shouldn't complain, for there is always a running drama. One odd aspect is the awarding of the vice-presidential nomination as a sort of consolation prize. Elections can make strange teammates. Republican vice-presidential candidate John A. Logan in 1884 and James G. Blaine, the presidential candidate, detested each other. The ironic poet had Logan saying, ''We never speak as we pass by, Me to Jim Blaine nor him to I.''

Delegates elected to the mysterious Electoral College are not bound to vote for the man they are supposed to. In the last three elections there have been ''faithless electors'' who bolted the system at the last moment.

This isn't the biggest problem though. The question is whether the protracted system picks the best men to run the world's most powerful nation at a time of increasing risks? This reporter goes back every four years to reread James Bryce , the friendly British ambassador who wrote the classic two-volume study, ''The American Commonwealth.'' It is a splendid study whose Chapter VIII is headed, ''Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.''

He wrote, ''Europeans often ask, and Americans do not always explain, how it happens that this great office, the greatest in the world unless we except the Papacy, to which anyone can rise by his own merits, is not more frequently filled by great and striking men.''

He says it might be expected that the highest place ''would always be won by a man of brilliant gifts.'' But no, he says, it isn't so, ''the proportion of first-rate ability drawn into politics is smaller in America than in most European countries. Another reason might be the harsh scrutinizing: ''Fiercer far than the light which beats upon a throne is the light which beats upon a presidential candidate, searching out all the recesses of his past life. . . .''

He concludes that the US system of winnowing out presidential candidates is designed to discover the safe man rather than the great man. The primary objective of the immediate contest is to find a candidate who can get elected, not necessarily be the best man chosen. He writes, ''He likes his candidates 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. . . .'' Hence, says Lord Bryce, ''when the choice lies between a brilliant man and a safe man, the safe man is preferred.''

Things have changed in the past century - the world is bigger, there is radio and television; there are new values. It is also a more perilous world. But our political system hasn't changed very much. We have, I think, the most cumbersome a way of picking our No. 1 leader.

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