Nation's actual election took place yesterday ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- In case you didn't notice, in all 50 states yesterday the actual election of Bill Clinton as the next president took place. Electors for the winners of the popular vote on Nov. 3 gathered in each of the states and formally cast their ballots in the Electoral College, probably the most notable college without a campus in the country.

When you went to the polls last month, you technically cast your ballot for these electors, previously selected by the campaigns of the candidates. Their names actually used to appear on the ballot in many states but seldom do anymore. Each state will now dutifully forward the results to Congress, where it will fall to Vice President Dan Quayle on Jan. 6 as president of the Senate to announce the outcome that will send President Bush and himself into private life two weeks later.

It was the Electoral College at which independent hopeful Ross tTC Perot hoped to matriculate in his presidential bid until his abrupt retreat from candidacy in mid-July, saying that such candidacy would prevent either of the two major-party nominees from achieving a majority there and thus force the election into the House of Representatives, as stipulated in the Constitution.

In the end, though, Perot cast this concern to the winds, became a candidate and surprised most political crystal-ballers by winning 19 percent of the popular vote. But because he failed to carry a single state, he won no electoral votes and the threat that his candidacy would toss a monkey wrench into the machinery did not materialize.

Nevertheless, Perot's candidacy and popular vote of 19.2 million are likely to rekindle the argument over the need for the Electoral College, whereby two presidents, Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, entered the White House without a popular-vote majority. (A third, John Quincy Adams in 1824, won at a time when six of the 24 states did not choose their electors by popular vote.)

When Perot shot into the lead over Bush and Clinton in the national polls and many state polls last spring and early summer, there was much nervous speculation about the possibility of Perot's snatching electoral votes in enough states to be elected by winning pluralities of less than 40 percent, while Bush and Clinton split the remaining 60 percent.

His abrupt pullout seriously damaged him, particularly among many Perot supporters who felt betrayed. There is no telling how much more support he would have gotten than the 19 percent he finally posted nationwide had he stayed in -- and survived the news media investigations and interrogations of his business practices, penchant for snooping, etc. But under the Electoral College procedure, slipping into the White House as a plurality winner would have been at least a possibility.

Defenders of the Electoral College predictably will now cite the Perot experience, or at least the Perot potentiality, as reason to keep it in place, while not only Perot supporters but also third parties such as the Libertarians who also got their candidate, Andre Marrou, on the ballot in all 50 states will again raise the argument for straight election of the president by popular vote.

In a paper earlier this year, William C. Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Commission's National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, defended the Electoral College on grounds that although it can produce a president who fails to win the popular vote, it ensures one who has "both sufficient popular support to govern ... sufficiently distributed throughout the country." A straight popular vote, he argued, could result in a winner who might have scored heavily in several of the more populous states while running weakly in most of the rest of the country.

Kimberling also defended the system as a protection for the two-party system, which is fine if you happen to be a Republican or a Democrat. Third-party efforts already have enough roadblocks in their way. Just because Ross Perot may be seen by many as a threat right now is hardly a reason to reject the idea that every American's vote ought to count for as much as every other's -- not the case as long as the Electoral College exists with its potential for frustrating the popular vote.

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