In the immortal words of Harry Micajah Daugherty, political broker and bagman extraordinaire, you can forget about all that democracy stuff. When it's all done, Warren Harding's presidential campaign manager predicted as the Republicans assembled to pick their 1920 choice, the GOP convention would be deadlocked. The nominee then would be decided by a group of men "who will sit down about 2 o'clock in the morning around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel." Out of that session, Daugherty said confidently, would come the selection of Harding. So it was, and so much for the popular will.

For generations Daugherty's example of the smoke-filled room that gave the nation Warren Harding has been cited as the seamy side of American politics -- and of what's wrong with the presidential selection process. Countless reforms have altered that process in the years since the corrupt Harding era. But 20 weeks from Tuesday, when the 1980 presidential election will become history, Americans may come to wish they had something as relatively simple as the smoke-filled room to choose their president. For this election shapes up as posing the greatest potential thwarting of the popular vote in our history.

Responsibility for that condition lies not with the modern age of American politics but with its cherished past. For this potential timebomb, blame Alexander Hamilton and others of our revered founding fathers. They gave us the antiquated Electoral College, a curio out of the 18th century unsuited for the closing years of the 20th.

The original idea of the Electoral College was to provide a tempering of the choice of the masses, with their passions and prejudices, and ensure an orderly transfer of political power between elite groups. It was created before America had political parties that chose their presidential candidates and waged their national campaigns for them. As Prof. Nelson W. Polsby of Berkeley writes:

"The college was to be a council of wise men, elected (as it still is today) from the states in proportion to state entitlements to representation in Congress. The wise men were expected to sift through the qualifications of presidential candidates and select the person best suited to the job. Of course, nothing of the sort has happened in practice. Electors' names rarely even appear on ballots. Whether they are wise or not, no one will ever know. Except for a few isolated eccentrics who occasionally violate their promise to the voters to act as electors 'for' the presidential candidate on whose slate they were victorious, electors perform their tasks automatically. They meet after the election in the several state capitols more or less ceremoniously and dispose of the business of casting their ballots quickly. The real work of winnowing and sifting candidates goes on elsewhere in our political system."

In any event, until now the work the Electroal College was supposed to perform always has been accomplished by a party nominating process never envisioned by Hamilton and the other founders.

We don't directly elect our presidents. We vote for electors, who are picked by the state party apparatus. Since winner takes all in each state's alloted electoral votes, the heart of presidential election rests in the most populus states. Carry the 10 or 12 biggest states and it matters not how citizens in the remainder voted.

For most of our history, the president has taken most of the popular votes cast and also won a majority of the electoral votes. Once, in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes finished second in the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, but was elected by carrying enough electoral votes -- a condition that brought the nation to a point of civil war. And in the only example to date, in 1824, none of the presidential canidates had enough electoral votes to be elected. Then, as provided by the Constitution, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams, who had trailed Andrew Jackson in the electoral votes, became president.

A similar situation could take place this year.

Unfurl the 1976 electoral map that showed how Jimmy Carter came to Washington, compare it to the political situation today in a competitive three-way presidential contest between Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson, and you come up with the following:

Carter's base of support was the Old Confederacy (less Virginia), the border states, and the industrial Northeast and North Central. In each of those areas today he stands in jeopardy.

In the South, he appears to have lost the oil-producing states he carried four years ago -- Texas and Louisiana -- plus Mississippi and quite probably Florida to Regan. That takes away 60 of his previous electoral votes. Give him all the rest of the southern states (again, except Virginia, with 12 votes, Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina and Arkansas, and the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee, that he carried before. He emerges from the region with a base of 61 electoral votes. Reagan has 72.

Take the Rocky Mountain and Plains states. Four years ago, Carter carried none. Reagan seems to have them now. Those electoral votes from Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma give him 61 there. n

In the Mid-Atlantic states, assume Carter keeps what he had before -- Maryland, Delaware, West Virgina, and the District of Columbia -- for a total of 22 electoral votes. In New England add Maine (4 votes) for him, because of his selection of Edmund Muskie as secretary of state, and in the North Central states keep Minnesota (10) in his column because of Vice President Mondale. Reagan holds the Republican states of Vermont (3) and New Mapshire (4) and keeps the GOP states of Iowa (8), Illinois (26), Indiana (13) and Alaska (3). Carter maintains a hold on Missouri (12), Wisconsin (11), and Hawaii (4) as he did last time.

You now have Reagan carrying 24 states with 190 electoral votes. Carter has carried 15 states and D.C. with 124 votes. What's left is the heart of the election, the real battleground of '80.

Roughly draw a line across the country and drop down along the West Coast and you have the critical electoral votes. Here John Anderson's candidacy coult well be decisive. As Peter Hart, the pollster, says, Anderson stands astride Carter's reelection prospects like the Colossus of Rhodes.

For the sake of argument, let's say he manages to carry the states where Edward Kennedy did best and he has run strongly -- New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, with 67 electoral votes. His candidacy also is crucial for Carter in the major industrial states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan. Carter narrowly carried Ohio and Pennsylvania last time while losing, also narrowly, New Jersey and Michigan. Reagan is popular in New Jersey; Carter is not. Give Jersey's 17 to Reagan. And, with rising unemployment tearing at the labor force in the other traditional Democratic strongholds, put Ohio, Pennsyvlania, and Michigan with their 73 votes in Carter's totals.

Similarly, say the Far West remains Republican, and Regan's, with Washington, Orgeon and California giving him 60 more.

Reagan has carried 28 states and has 267 electoral votes. Carter has 18 states plus D.C. and 197 electoral votes. Anderson has four states and 67. No one has the necessary 270 electoral votes. The election goes into the House, where each state is given one vote for president, Reagan, with by far the most states should be elected. But don't count on it. The state delegations are not bound by the popular vote, either. And now the Democrats control more states than Republicans.

The last laugh is Hamilton's, not Harry Daugherty's. As Hamilton said long ago, "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right."