That was a very useful and thoughtful report by the Commission on National Elections on the U.S. presidential election system. It dispelled a lot of nonsense about the system that has become accepted as wisdom by people who should know better.
This includes the assumptions that campaigns are too long, too expensive and that they bore and alienate voters, causing this country to have the smallest percentage turnout of the Western democracies.
The committee's hard look led to some sensible recommendations -- that the key to turnout is voter registration, that there be a national registration day 30 to 45 days before each presidential election and that we try making presidential election day a national holiday so voting would be easier for working people.
In all this the commission reflected the broad range of political experience of its members and its cochairmen, Republican Melvin Laird and Democrat Robert Strauss, who are two of the wiliest and most pragmatic political operatives in town. But the real meat of the report was the common-sense finding that the electoral process on the whole works better than most people realize: "by and large it has served the nation well."
It works the way it does, in fact, because it has to, given the size and makeup of the country. The commission came to realize there is only so much tinkering and fine- tuning of the process that will work. This finding is no minor accomplishment. Americans tend to take a somewhat mechanical attitude toward their political system, which may reflect the rational, mechanistic Age of Enlightenment philosophy of the Founding Fathers.
Formed out of a concern that our presidential elections are too long, expensive and boring, the commission found that elections aren't much longer than they ever have been, that a certain amount of time is required for presidential candidates to make themselves known in a country as huge and diverse in population and geography as this one. Any resemblance of our situation to that of a small, heterogeneous parliamentary democracy such as England, which can have three-week elections, exists primarily in someone's imagination.
Campaign costs have risen primarily because of television costs, but the commission recognizes there isn't much that can be done about this unless the networks can be persuaded or forced to give up free time.
There has always been something contradictory about people who want shorter, cheaper, tidier elections and at the same time a fair shot for challengers and underdogs along with a full discussion of the issues on the other. Time and money are the variables challengers have, and generally speaking the more money spent on TV and mail, the more information voters get about issues -- regardless of dissatisfaction with 30-second TV spots.
And turnout isn't low because people get bored with the campaigns. Most people in a presidential election year pay attention for about a week before their primary and then go about their business until two or three weeks before the general election. It is we in Washington who follow the game week in and week out and finally get sick of it.
The key to turnout is registration, which is much more difficult in this country than in other democracies and which helps account for the difference in turnouts. The commission found that 85 to 90 percent of registered voters voted last year compared to only about 53 percent of all eligible voters, which is why a national registration day, postcard registration and other ways to make registration easier make so much sense.
In its nine months of deliberation, the commission became aware of the unofficial but ubiquitous "law of unintended consequences" under which well-meaning reforms, particularly of campaign finance, wind up working exactly opposite to the intent of the reformers. The sources, amounts and distribution of money constitute a thorny and divisive problem and probably always will. The last 15 years have seen one unsuccessful effort after another by reformers to make campaign financing more rational and equal, which is to say to try to cut down the ability of the special interests the reformers oppose to make contributions.
Money will always find its way into politics, and the commission can be forgiven for not coming up with the definitive recommendation on how it should do so. Nine months isn't nearly long enough to solve that problem.