THE single most vilified provision of the U.S. Constitution has no immediate bearing on the critical issues of civil rights, inflation or war, although ultimately its effect on them is immeasurable. Nor does the passage involve the two "pops" for which reformers have been crusading in recent months: popular nationwide primaries and popular tax-supported campaign financing. It concerns instead the 59-word paragraph in Article 2 of the Constitution that establishes the Electoral College as the mechanism for choosing a President. In the 180 years since ratification, more than 500 proposals have been advanced in Congress for abolishing or altering the College. Forty reform amendments are currently before the House Judiciary Committee, and debate about the function and wisdom of the system is reaching the highest pitch in decades.
The reason for the fuss this year is the possibility, exaggerated though it may be, that George Corley Wallace and his "spoiler" third party could conceivably capitalize on the proportional mathematics of the College and deny victory to either major-party candidate. Wallace would thus deadlock the results of the Nov. 5 voting, and with just two weeks remaining before Inauguration Day could throw the election into the House of Representatives. Political Scientist James MacGregor Burns says of the U.S. electoral process: "It's a game of Russian roulette, and one of these days we are going to blow our brains out." Most Americans might agree with Burns' appraisal if only they understood how the process works.
Unless he is an elector, no American votes directly for the "President of his choice." Instead, voters in each state decide between slates of opposing electors chosen by the contending parties. In Kansas, for example, voters who put their X beside Richard Nixon's name this Nov. 5 will actually be choosing seven Republicans, among them Dean S. Evans Sr., 47, a Salina grain and cattle dealer and regular party contributor. Kansans who prefer Hubert Humphrey will actually vote for seven Democrats, including Mrs. Georgia Neese Clark Gray, 68, a Topeka bank president and U.S. Treasurer under Harry Truman.
Each slate of electors is equal in number to the total of the state's U.S. Senators and Representatives, a device that grants small states the same disproportionate share of influence that they obtain from their two Senate votes. New York, with a population 50 times that of Nevada, has only 14 times as many electoral votes. Laws in each state award all its electoral votes to the statewide winner, no matter how large or small his plurality. The winner-take-all device applies whether the popular vote is light or heavy, and in the "one-party states" it often discourages dissidents from voting.
Forty-one days after they are named, the electors meet in their state capitols to choose the President. Legally, they are free to select whomever they please, although custom and party discipline usually bind them to the nominee they have pledged to support. If no candidate wins a clear majority of the electors' 538 votes, the contest moves to the House of Representatives, where, in theory, the 26 smallest states, with 17% of the U.S. population, could impose on the nation a President of their own choosing.