Finally, time to decide


State to state. City to city. Street to street. Door to door. Down to the wire. This year's presidential campaign is full of the excitement and suspense elections are supposed to hold but haven't in a generation.

If the trend holds, American voters will take part today in the closest federal election since 1960. For those who don't remember, that was the year John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon by what, in modern times, was the barest of margins: 118,550 popular votes out of more than 68 million cast. In the Electoral College, that musty but durable remnant of 18th century elitism, the margin was greater: Kennedy 303, Nixon 219.

We could be obstreperous and point out that for millions of Americans this year's choices are not quite of the same caliber as 1960, but that would serve no useful purpose. We can caution that Al Gore or George W. Bush could win the presidency without winning the popular vote, a thankfully rare occurrence that would require a precise alignment of all the political and statistical stars and planets.

Most Americans probably would react with some mixture of surprise and anger if the popular-vote winner were to be shot down in the winner-take-all Electoral College. This is a nation, after all, where the majority rules. But it can happen. The last time was in 1888, when Grover Cleveland won 95,713 more votes than Benjamin Harrison, but got some of them in the wrong states and Harrison was elected, 233 electoral votes to 168.

Another possibility, also mercifully remote, is that neither candidate would receive the required 270 electoral vote majority and the House of Representatives would be called by the Constitution to choose the next Leader of the Free World. To make matters more interesting, the House that would do the choosing would be the new House, the one to be elected by the voters today. Each congressional delegation would have a single vote to reflect the outcome in each state. Presidents were elected by this happenstance in 1800 (Jefferson) and 1824 (John Quincy Adams).

What some historians consider the ultimate in presidential election chicanery occurred in 1876, when Fremont's own Rutherford B. Hayes won the White House, chosen by a joint session of Congress on the recommendation of a special commission created to decide disputed votes in three southern states. This came after Hayes promised to end post-Civil War penalties on southern states known as Reconstruction.

And there's another wild card. Members of the Electoral College, who will meet on Dec. 18, aren't required by the Constitution to cast their ballots the same way as the popular vote. They usually do, but not always, as in 1988 when an elector from West Virginia voted for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the vice presidential candidate, instead of ticket leader Michael Dukakis.

So voters can be confident when they go to the polls today that their vote will count. They just have to hope that it will count in the precise manner they intended.