Should the United States revamp the way it elects presidents by scrapping or overhauling the Electoral College?

Though this is a tired old issue, new life is being breathed into it these days by the candidacy of Ross Perot. This development raises the possibility that the candidate with the most popular votes may not be able to muster a winning majority in the Electoral College, throwing the final decision to the U.S. House of Representatives.In response, some political leaders -- including Utah Rep. Bill Orton -- are calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and ensure that whoever wins the most popular votes becomes president.

Now a bipartisan group called the Electoral Fairness Project is pushing a different approach, one that would not require a constitutional amendment. The group wants each of the states to abolish the winner-take-all system by which all states except Maine and Nebraska distribute votes in the Electoral College.

The fact that a constitutional amendment requires passage by two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress plus ratification by three-fourths of the states tells how much chance this approach has of being accomplished in time to affect the 1992 election.

The fact that few state legislatures are in session says how much chance the Electoral Fairness Project has of making an immediate impact.

More important, the fact that Congress has over the past two centuries considered and rejected more than 500 proposals for scrapping or reforming the Electoral College should indicate the prospects for any such change for decades to come.

Those who keep pushing for such reforms seem to forget, if they ever knew, that the framers of the U.S. Constitution considered no less than 10 different methods of selecting the prresident before deciding on the Electoral College. The argument for and against the Electoral College have changed little since then.

The main criticism of the electoral College is that it is possible for the presidential candidate winning the most popular votes to lose by failing to win enough electoral votes. This happened in 1876 and 1888, and there have been a number of close calls.

But reforms are persistently rejected because direct popular election of the president or anything like it would foster the development of splinter parties. Splinter parties could frequently result in the selection of a president who receives only a minority of the popular vote and does not represent the majority of the people.

Small states like the Electoral College because it gives them more political clout than they would otherwise have. This happens because each state has as many electoral votes as it has members of Congress. No matter how large or small its population, each state has two senators. Also, each state is guaranteed at least one House member even if the state's entire population is less than half the population of congressional districts in large states.

As a result of this arrangement, the votes of Utah citizens in presidential elections count nearly twice as much as those of voters in such states as Michigan and California. This is no flaw or accident. The framers of the Constitution were intent on safeguarding states' rights and protecting smaller states from being overpowered by large ones in presidential elections.

The latest efforts at revamping the Electoral College are being pushed not on the basis of what has happened but out of fear of what might happen in the 1992 presidential election. Consequently, the fact remains that the present system is not broken. And the best advice is still the familiar admonition: If it isn't broken, don't fix it.