Once again, newspapers and magazines are full of presidential numbers-game stories because of the aniquated Electoral College system and the possibiliy that independent candidate John Anderson may capture enough votes to deny victory on Nov. 4 to either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan.
But there is one aspect of this possibility that I have yet to see mentioned. It involves the District of Columbia and its three electoral votes that were granted by the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which gave District residents a vote for president beginning with the election of 1964.
That amendment says, simply, that the District shall have "a number of electors of president and vice president equal to the whole number of senators and representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a state" -- that is, three by its present population.
The amendment goes on to say these electors -- the people the voters actually select rather than the presidential candidate for whom they stand -- "shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of president and vice president, to be electors appointed by a state; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided" by the amendment. The amendment gives Congress power "to enforce this article by appropriate legislation" on the details of the election procedure.
In the elections of 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976, the winning presidential candidates' margins were greater than the District's mere three electoral votes. But this year could be different -- and in one critical aspect that the authors of the 23rd Amendment ignored when they wrote it.
Historically, the total number of electoral votes has been an odd number, though there have been some exceptions that proved to be meaningless. The addition of three votes for the District has meant an even-number total beginning in 1964. This November, 538 electoral votes will be at issue, and the Constitution requires a majority to elect a president -- 270 this year.
It could be, then, that if Anderson carried a single state -- say, Massachusetts with 14 electoral votes -- the remaining 524 votes could be so divided between Carter and Reagan that neither reached the magic 270.
Pollster Mervin Field, whose record of prognostications is good, said recently that Anderson has a 35 to 50 percent chance of throwing the election into the House.
In that case, the election of the president would be the job of the House of Representatives. That has occurred twice in our history: in 1801 when the House chose Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr, and in 1825 when it chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. It could happen in 1981. And it would be the new Congress elected this coming November that would select the president in such a case.
Accoridng to the 12th Amendment, the House "in choosing the president," votes not as 435 individual representatives but by states, and "a majority of all the States shall be necessary to a choice." A majority of each state's House members decide how that state shall vote.
It should be obvious now that, if it comes to that, the District of Columbia will have no vote. It was given the right to act like a state as far as voting in November for presidential electors. But there is no provision for the District's non-voting delegate, currently Walter Fauntroy, or for anybody else to cast the District's voter as "if it were a state" should the election be thrown into the House. He would sit mute -- and frustrated.
It would take a majority of the 50 states, 26, to choose a president. It is conceivable that enough state delegations could be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans that those states' votes could not be cast in such a House roll call. In that case, the new vice president, selected by the Senate (from the top two electoral vote-getters) would become acting president next Jan. 20, under terms of the 20th Amendment. The District, of course, would have no voice in the choice of the vice president because it has no senators.
The propsed constitutional amendment to give the District of Columbia representation in both House and Senate would, if it ever were ratified by enough states, let the District's senators help choose the vice president, in the circumstances just described. But even that proposed amendment failed to include a provision makin clear that the District's member or members in the House should vote, as would those from the 50 states, in the event a presidential election were thrown into the House.
One can devoutly hope, and I do, that this year's election is, indeed, thrown into the House since that seems to be the only kind of shock that will force into the Constitution a new amendment abolishing the whole Electorial College scheme in favor of a straight-out popular-vote selection of our presidents. In that case, the District voters would at least be on a par with others across the nation.