THE ODDS are high that you don't know now -- and never will know -- the names of the real candidates for whom you voted yesterday. They were not, as the voting machines and ballots say they were, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson. They were a group of electors -- some of them well known in their own communities, others quite obscure -- into whose hands now falls the responsibility of choosing a president.
These 538 electors will cast the only ballots that really matter -- sometime next month. Almost all of them will vote the way we now expect them to: for the presidential/vice presidential team that got the most poplular votes in their state. But there is no guarantee of that. Ronald Reagan received one electoral vote four years ago when he wasn't running. Despite the efforts of some states to put legal limits on the electors' freedom of choice, these 539 people are bound primarily to vote for the candidate's under whose banner they ran only by their own sense of duty. A group of runaway electors exercising their constitutinally-given free choice could plunge the nation into political chaos.
It has been clear for more than a century that the method by which this nation elects a president is absurdly dangerous. It can produce a new chief executive who finished second in the popular vote -- it did in 1888, and a shift of 10,000 votes in two states would have done it again in 1976. It can put the choice of a new president in the hands of the members of the House of Representatives -- it did in 1824, and a shift of 75,000 votes in two states in 1968 would have done that again.
Why, then, does the nation tolerate the continued existence of the electoral college when all that remains of this fond dream of the Founding Fathers is a bomb waiting for the right circumstances to go off? The answer is: because there is no national consensus on what should replace it -- and this has been true since 1824, when President Andrew Johnson raised the matter.
Direct election of the president by the national popular vote count? No, say opponents, because that would open the door to fraud and endless recounts. Division of each state's electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote of each candidate? No, that would encourage the proliferation of political parties. Force all the states to choose two electors at large and one from each congressional district, as Maine now does? No, say opponents, because that would merely encourage the party controlling each state legislature to draw those district lines to provide even more safe harbors for its candidates. Eliminate the problem of the "faithless" elector by automatically calculating electoral votes based on the popular vote count? Why bother, since the required constitutional amendment would not touch the heart of the problem, the winner-take-all system?
There are few other subjects to which so much time and study have been devoted in the last 50 years by Congress and serious students of government. Every decade or so, a major effort is mounted to eliminate or modify the electoral college. Inevitably, the squabbling begins and the only decision reached is to do nothing.
Sooner or later, this relic will self-destruct and Congress will have to act. In the meantime, it is best to hope in each election that this is not the year of an electoral college disaster and go on pulling those voting levers as if votes were being cast for real candidates, not nameless electors.