Election commission suggests voting holiday, national registration

A bipartisan commission that spent months studying United States presidential campaigns has proposed that Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1988, be declared a national holiday as a one-time experiment to encourage voting. The blue-ribbon commission also proposed that there be a ``national registration day'' every election year to boost the number of Americans who go to the polls.

Dozens of experts have testified this year before the 41-member commission, headed by Democrat Robert S. Strauss and Republican Melvin R. Laird. They have suggested dozens and dozens of reforms for US presidential campaigns.

Yet the commission's findings, widely endorsed by both liberals and conservatives who served on that body, were cautious -- and sometimes surprising.

Commission co-chairman Laird said at the beginning of the study that he and Mr. Strauss assumed that ``great reforms were needed.'' The popular perception was that the system was full of problems. Yet the commission concluded that:

Presidential campaigns, which often last for two years, are not too long.

Presidential elections, which cost tens of millions of dollars, are not too expensive.

Presidential elections, which are often criticized by scholars and politicians, are actually serving the country quite well.

There are problems, Mr. Laird and Mr. Strauss agreed. The problems are not in the process, however, but in failing to get more of the people involved.

Thus, the key finding of the commission was that ``this nation must do far more to enable every citizen to register and vote.''

Those two words -- ``register'' and ``vote'' -- are inextricably linked, the commission concluded. In recent presidential races, barely 50 percent of eligible Americans voted; but 87-to-89 percent of those who were registered voters went to the polls.

Registering does three crucial things.

First, it qualifies a person to vote. In most states, you cannot vote unless you register well ahead of election day.

Second, the very act of registering appears to serve as a commitment to voting. Once a person registers, that person almost always shows up on election day.

Third, registering puts a voter on the mailing list for candidates. This means that beginning about 40 days before the election, the voter will be bombarded with literature, telephone calls, and other appeals.

This supplies the voter with vital information needed to cast an intelligent vote. Being well informed also acts as a further stimulus to voting.

The commission studied a wide range of ideas -- from 24-hour voting to a national ban on ``negative'' TV commercials.

Many of these proposals, however, were found to be either impractical, or politically or constitutionally impossible.

The commission zeroed in on ideas that had chances of quick adoption before the 1988 campaign heats up. Some of the commission's ideas are already being debated in Congress.

The findings were divided into seven broad areas and included the following:

1. Length of campaign. Today's campaigns are really not much longer than in the past. Shortening campaigns would make it far more difficult for a little-known candidate to win a party's nomination. But artificially lengthening the campaign should be avoided by doing away with early straw ballots by state parties.

2. Primaries, caucuses, and conventions. It is probably impractical to force New Hampshire to change the date of its primary, or Iowa to change the date of its caucuses. But their early voting gives those states a disproportionate influence. To gain greater balance, there should probably also be an early primary in one state in the South, and another in the West.

Regional primaries should be avoided. They could result in a ``Southern candidate,'' a ``Western candidate,'' a ``New England candiate,'' etc., a trend the commission would consider unhealthy.

3. Costs. Public financing appears to have virtually ended corruption of presidential election finance, the commission concludes. Yet during the primaries, candidates are still being forced to spend too much time raising money, and therefore have too little time to debate issues. The commission recommends raising the limit on personal contributions from $1,000 to $2,500 to give candidates easier access to funds during the preconvention period.

4. TV ads. While often distasteful, such ads cannot be limited because of the First Amendment. The commission recommends, however, that the two parties adopt a code of ethics to raise the level of such ads, and ask all party candidates to be bound by it.

5. Debates. There should be at least three debates between Labor Day and election day, and the debates should be under the aegis of the parties. While both party chairmen have agreed in principle with this proposal, it is obviously unenforceable if either major party presidential nominee declines.

6. Access to the polls. From the White House to the courthouse, there should be support for a national registration day. States should also make it easier to register.

7. Role of news media. Candidates should be given greater access to the media, including free time where possible. TV and radio news departments should use caution in predicting the outcome of an election based on exit polling. Simultaneous closing times for the polls should be considered by Congress and the states.

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