ONCE AGAIN, plans are being pushed to "reform" the system under which we choose the Chief of State. The Carter administration has thrown its weight behind the proposal, offered by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and provide for direct election of the President and Vice President.
On the surface the idea seems valid and democratically pure, but in fact it does not satisfy the basic objective of Electoral College reform. It would not assure an adequate voice in the selection process for all the varied interests in this vast and complex country.
This adventure into the political unknown, instead, would reinforce the trend toward emphasis in political campaigning on the large population centers where television saturation influences the most voters. The danger is that areas with relatively few inhabitants but with economic and cultural significance would be neglected, inevitably alienating voters of those regions.
There is, I believe, a practical alternative which would correct the faults in the present system and meet the reform objective. It would contain these elements:
Each congressional district would have one electoral vote.
Each state would have two electoral votes. These votes would be awarded to the candidate with the highest total in the popular vote in the given district or state.
In addition, there would be a federal electoral vote of 50, recorded for the candidate winning the most votes nation-wide.
Thus, there would be a total of 588 electoral votes, and a bare majority of 295 would be required for election to the presidency.
The Electoral College itself would be abolished, and the various electoral votes would be recorded automatically for the winning candidate after the results are certified by the proper state officials.
The required federal administration would be entrusted to the present Federal Election Commission or a special Presidential Election Commission nominated by the chief executive on a bipartisan basis and confirmed by the Senate.
That commission would record the various electoral votes and report the results to the Senate president and the House speaker. Congress would be required to declare the election of a President on the basis of the commission's report.
What would happen if there were charges of voting fraud? Requests for recounts on a district or state level would go to the commission for certification to the proper state authorities. If a recount could affect the ultimate outcome of the election, the commission could delay its report to Congress, subject to Supreme Court review. At any rate, all recounts would have to be completed within 60 days after election day.
What if there were three or more candidates receiving electoral votes and no one candidate won a majority? In such a case, the candidate running last in the national popular voting would be eliminated from consideration. His district and state electoral votes would be reallocated to the candidate who ran second to him in the popular vote in that particular state or district. This last-man-out concept would assure the selection of a President without the complexities of run-off elections on a district or state level.
THE IMPACT of such a system would be significant. In a direct and nation-wide popular presidential election, the individual voter is part of anonymous mass, lost among 80 million or more voters trooping to the polls. But under the present proposal, each citizen's ballot would have a three-fold impact - on the district, state and national electoral votes.
By giving each state two electoral votes, we would assure recognition of each state's total voting pattern as well as the particular preferences of each district within the state. The 50 federal electoral votes, on the other hand, would reflect overall national concerns and help insure that the popular vote winner also won the electoral vote.
Direct, nationwide popular election would give no voice to our regional differences. The present proposal would recognize them. The people of the congressional district in rural Kansas would have equal weight with the voters in Chicago or New York. The cattle farmer and the production line worker would have means of political expression without one being overwhelmed by the other because of sheer numbers.
Or put it another way: Much was made at the time of the fact that in the 1976 election President Ford carried almost all the states west of the Mississippi. But surely Carter won congressional districts in those states. The difference is that Carter's district victories did not show in the Electoral College results.
Thus, the present inflexible principle that the winner takes all in a given state would be eliminated by the allocation of electoral votes to each district. On the other hand, given the prize of 50 federal electoral votes, the winning candidate would have to demonstrate a truly national appeal.
HERE IS no question but that we require some form of electoral reform. In three of the last five presidential elections, we came within a hair's breadth of naming a President who placed second in the national popular vote. As all who follow the political process know, a shift of 9,245 votes - 5,558 of them in Ohio and 3,687 in Hawaii - last November would have changed the electoral college total sufficiently to throw the election to Gerald Ford.
Such examples are used as arguments for the direct election of Presidents by direct nationwide popular vote. It does not necessarily follow. For, while congressional redistricting has distorted historical data to a degree, a review of election results from 1916 onward shows that in each presidential balloting the winner of the popular vote would have won the White House if the reform plan under discussion had been in effect.
Perhaps the benchmark is the famous 1960 election. John F. Kennedy's majority in the popular vote was slender - 119,000 votes - but it was a majority. And yet a minor shift in votes in two states - 4,430 ballots in IIlinois where 4,757,409 people vote, and 23,117 votes in Texas where 2,311,845 votes were cast - would have given Richard Nixon 51 more electoral votes, enough to win though he would have been chosed by a minority of the voters.
But what if Nixon had received an additional 119,001 votes in the states whose electoral votes he did win? The result would not have changed. Kennedy would be President, a minority President.
Under the reform plan presented here, the winner of the popular vote in 1960 would also have won the presidency. And each vote would have counted, on a district level, a state level and a national level.