It caused scarcely a ripple in the flow of the evening news. Newspapers buried the story of Ronald Reagan's election on their inside pages. Unless you looked quickly and carefully, you might not have been aware that the presidential election that counted wasn't on Nov. 6. It was on Dec. 17.
That was the appointed day for the presidential electors to meet, state by state, and to cast their official ballots for president and vice president. By good fortune -- not by law or by court decree -- everything went smoothly this year. All the electors dutifully cast their votes according to the November returns: Reagan, 525; Mondale, 13.
The Electoral College, as it is known for no good reason, is the vermiform appendix of our political system. It serves no useful purpose, and it contains a potential for painful trouble. It ought to be abolished. While we're at it, one other time-bomb provision of the Constitution ought also to be defused.
No elector defected this time, and Reagan's margin was so immense that a few defections would not have mattered. But let there be no doubt that presidential electors, once chosen in November, are free as birds the following month.
The first faithless elector was a Pennsylvania Federalist who voted in 1796 for Jefferson rather than for Adams. In 1820 a New Hampshire elector who had been chosen for Monroe voted for John Quincy Adams instead. In 1948 a Truman elector in Tennessee voted for Strom Thurmond. In 1956 an Alabama elector for Stevenson cast his vote for a local judge instead. In 1960 a Nixon elector in Oklahoma went for Harry F. Byrd. In 1968 a North Carolina elector who theoretically was pledged to Nixon defected to George Wallace. In 1972 a Republican elector in Virginia cast his official vote for the Libertarian candidate.
None of these faithless actions affected the outcome, but it may be useful to pray a moment over what might have been. The electoral vote in 1948 was Truman 303, Dewey 189 and Thurmond 39. It then took 266 electoral votes to win. If the Truman electors in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee had been joined in defecting by even one elector from Florida, the 1948 election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives.
There we meet the second ticking time bomb. In such an event, the vote is taken by states -- and each state has but one vote. Twice in our history, in 1801 and again in 1825, when no candidate attained a majority of electoral votes, the House had to choose. In 1916 a switch of only 12 electoral votes would have thrown the Wilson- Hughes election into the House. It would have taken only 36 defectors in 1960, only 29 in 1976, to have triggered a political crisis.
Nothing decrees that our two-party system will go on forever. It is entirely possible that the future will see the rise of powerful third and fourth parties. It takes no more than a lively imagination and a sharp pencil to tote up calamity. No president could govern effectively if he were chosen in an election in which the votes of California and Nevada held the same weight. We would have riot in the streets.
I am not much on constitutional amendments, but modest revision of Article II strikes me as a prudent idea. Mind you, I am not for a moment suggesting that we go to direct popular election of our presidents. So reckless a move would set off unimaginable earthquakes within our federal system. Nothing is basically wrong with the arrangement by which each state casts an electoral vote equal to its total representation in the House and Senate. What is needed is simply insurance against faithless electors and "one state, one vote."