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The electoral college: will it blow its top?

In America's strange process of selecting a president we have now passed through the ordeal of 37 primaries, we next go through the national conventions (keynote speech, platform, vice-presidential selection), then we come to the lively slam-bang confrontation between (presumably) Messrs. Carter and Reagan (with possible direct debates), and, after that, the blessed end of it all, the vote. But does that really finish it? Not necessarily. There is the ultimate potential land mine of the electoral college. To vary the metaphor this institution perches on a political San Andreas fault with its own Mt. St. Helens; sooner or later it will blow its top. The last time was 1825. Will it do so in 1980? We must wait and see, meanwhile rereading the Founding Fathers' game rules for such matters.

Consulting my helpful League of Women Voters pamphlet "Choosing the President" (1968), I find the rather blunt comment that "the Founding Fathers were afraid of direct election by the people." So Alexander Hamilton invented the electoral college to put the choice into the hands of an upper-class elite. He was afraid of the mob (you and me). "It has survived more than 100 attempts in Congress," the League notes, "to bring to the people a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish it." My guess is that the electoral college won't be abolished until it erupts. It will do that when it sends the choice of president into the House of Representatives where it strews political lava and ash all over the landscape.

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The election goes to the House, you remember, if no presidential candidate has at least 270 of the 538 faceless electors. (I don't have to repeat that we don't actually vote for Messrs. Carter, Reagan, Anderson or none of the above. We vote for state electors on a winner-take-all basis. In other words, if 4,000 ,000 Californians vote for Carter, but 4,000,001 vote for Reagan, allm the California electoral votes go to Reagan.)

Very well then, for the next five months prepare to read imaginative scenarios of a possible electoral college blowoff. Americans love to live dangerously, I suppose, or we would have tidied up this electoral college hazard generations ago. Suppose Reagan gets 266 electoral votes, Carter gets 264 votes , and Anderson 8 votes. Then nobody is elected. It goes to the House where each of the 50 states has one vote, little Rhode Island equal to big California. There are a lot more ingenious complexities in the puzzle which I won't go into here. In any less placid nation it might well cause a revolution but nobody expects that in America. In fact in 1976 we were so disinterested that only about 54 percent of the eligible voters bothered to vote at all.

Why has the electoral college lasted so long? Partly because it is so difficult to change the Constitution anyway. And partly because it has advantages for some groups which direct, democratic, one-man one-vote selection doesn't have. The House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment for direct election by an overwhelming 339 to 70 vote in September, 1969, but the Senate version of the amendment, which was sponsored by 43 members, never emerged from committee because of a filibuster.As one Brookings Institution study explains, under direct voting "populous states and their major metropolitan areas would be less powerful in presidential elections." The direct vote would eliminate both the winner-take-all feature of the state contests "and the systematic overrepresentation of large parties" (as the Brookings study puts it). "It would also in all likelihood lead to many more third-party candidates." In short, says the study ("Third Parties in Presidential Elections, " Daniel Mazmanian, Brookings, 1974), changes in the electoral college system "may induce subtle shifts in the electoral strategies, rendering prediction based on past experience hazardous."

In 1980 the unknown factor is Rep. John B. Anderson. Can he get enough electoral delegates as a third candidate to prevent either of the others getting 270? Then he throws it into the House. It could all hinge on one state. Consider 1884. It was a nip-and-tuck battle between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. New York would decide it. The Prohibition Party candidate got 24, 999 votes; the Greenback Party got 16,955. Cleveland had a plurality of 1,149 votes. That gave him the state and the nation. If Blaine had got only a small portion of the two minority parties' vote he would have won.

Third parties, minority voter groups, and small states love their potential power under the electoral college. That's why it's still there.