Watching my two young children play can teach a lot about what happens when the rules of a game are confusing or keep changing -- kids just stop playing. That's what many people believe has happened to voters disillusioned with the presidential primary nominating system.

Some critics argue that the 2000 presidential primary and caucus schedule is too front loaded, that the campaign season has started too early, and that the selection of each party's candidate will be determined before many voters get the chance to cast a ballot. Some also have raised concerns that the system used by both major parties has become unbalanced -- granting too much influence to some states while ignoring others.

One of the most important functions of the Democratic National Committee is to organize the process for selecting our party's nominee for president. It is the DNC's responsibility to ensure that this process is fair and representative, that every Democratic voter has a voice.

Since the 1980 election cycle, the DNC has tried to contain the presidential primary season within a specific "window" or time frame (from the first Tuesday in March through the second Tuesday in June) in order to maximize voter interest and limit the cost of campaigns. The window is a key component of our delegate selection rules. We enforce it through the use of automatic sanctions (the loss of delegates at the convention) against any state party that schedules its "first determining step" outside the window. The system has been effective this election cycle, since no state other than Iowa and New Hampshire (who are accorded special first-in-the-nation status by our rules) is holding a Democratic primary or caucus before the first day of our window -- March 7, 2000.

There are differences between the Democratic and Republican parties on this issue. Historically, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has not had a window process. While it has established one for the 2000 election cycle, its primary schedule begins one month earlier than ours and has no enforcement mechanism. We welcome the RNC's efforts to shorten the process, but a joint effort in the future will prove much more effective.

This is not a "top-down" system of management -- with the Democratic Party dictating to state parties what they can and cannot do -- but rather an acknowledgment that the party takes seriously its responsibility to organize the selection process. As part of our ongoing efforts to ensure a balanced and fair selection system, I charged the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee this past September with the task of examining the primary schedule to develop a recommendation for future

cycles. We call this the "Beyond 2000" analysis.

I asked the committee to seek extensive input through a series of open hearings that include our party's leaders and elected officials, along with academics and other interested organizations and individuals. The committee held its first session last month in Washington. It heard from 17 witnesses, including a governor, two senators, a representative and three

secretaries of state. Future meetings are scheduled for Atlanta, San Francisco and Chicago.

Proposals under consideration include: rotating regional primaries (the plan recommended by the National Association of Secretaries of State); time-zone primaries; a four-date delegate selection (in which all primaries and caucuses would happen on one of four days, the first Tuesdays of March, April, May and June); changing nothing (only insisting that all primaries and caucuses take place in the calendar year of the convention); and the addition of incentives to "back load" (the party could offer "bonus delegates" to states that go later in the process, for example). The RNC rules already provide for this last option, but, in practice, it has had little effect on the 2000 calendar.

Ultimately, to institute any successful reforms, the leadership of both political parties should agree on a universal and bipartisan approach. DNC General Chair Edward G. Rendell and I have already talked to RNC chairman Jim Nicholson about this issue. The DNC and RNC staffs have begun meeting and sharing information.

While the front loading of primaries is something the DNC takes seriously, it is only symptomatic of a larger problem. The chief challenge we face is that voters are not participating or engaging in the democratic process as much as they used to. They don't feel that government touches their lives or is there to help them. Many feel they no longer have a stake or a voice in the process.

Continuing decline in voter participation is a national disgrace and an international embarrassment. Voting statistics for 1996 and 1998 are startling. In 1996, according to the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, turnout as a percentage of voting age population fell below 50 percent for the first time in a presidential election year since 1924 and the general election turnout dropped in every state. In the 1998 congressional elections, turnout as a percentage of voting age population declined to 36.1 percent -- the lowest level in any off-year election since 1942. The actual number of voters who turned out in 1998, as compared with 1994, dropped by 2.5 million.

Our broken campaign finance system has led many Americans to believe that only people with money have access to leaders and government. But the Republican Party leadership refuses to back meaningful campaign finance reform.

We need to take immediate steps to reverse the overall decline in participation. We need to enact real campaign finance reform. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the national party committees to work to ensure that all Americans feel a part of their political process and participate in electing their leaders. The Democratic Party is committed to doing just that.

Joe Andrew is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.