THE MOST SURPRISING thing about the report of the bipartisan Commission on National Elections, chaired by Robert Strauss and Melvin Laird, is its conclusion that the system works better than commission members had thought. The general sense of unease that many people share about the condition of presidential politics yielded during the inquiry to a conviction that the "process has, by and large, served the nation well." The commission has some sharp recommendations for change. But it finds the system "not in need of wholesale reform."
Do we take too long to choose presidents? Not much longer than we used to, it says, and we could shorten it if the parties would ban straw polls; but it's an important choice and one worth taking some time for. Do we spend too much on presidential campaigns? Actually, the commission notes, we spend less in real dollars than we did in 1972. Fund-raising is a drain on candidates' time, but less so in general elections because of public financing. What about the mishmash of primaries and caucuses? On reflection, the commission, like most observers, comes out against a single national primary or imposed regional primaries, though it encourages clustering of current contests.
Concerned about low turnout, the commission would have the federal government set a National Registration Day and encourage states to make it easier to register and vote. That much is certainly reasonable. It would also make election day 1988 a national holiday.
The limit on personal contributions should be raised from $1,000 to $2,500 to reflect inflation, the commission sensibly says, but PAC contribution limits should not be increased. And, of course, there should be full disclosure of contributions, including "soft money" -- contributions to state parties for use in national campaigns.
The commission thinks the two parties should agree to sponsor joint candidate appearances or television forums -- formerly called "debates" -- and to confirm them well before nominees are chosen. The two major-party chairmen, both members of the commission, signed an agreement to do just that. Dorothy Ridings of the League of Women Voters, which sponsored debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984, argues that third party candidates may get short shrift from the majors. But as the League found in 1980, it's hard for even a neutral sponsor to decide who should participate. A major-party agreement, while it tends to ensure there will be debates, doesn't bar others from sponsoring them too. When there are multiple sponsors, there tends to be useful experimentation with formats, as in the 1984 Democratic primaries. This is one of several useful recommendations for change in a system that for the most part works well.