PORTLAND, ORE. — The memos were sitting on a seat in plain view as I slid into the booth at one of my favorite lunch cafes. "Super Important/Don't Lose These!" was stamped across the top of each page. Before I had time to examine them carefully, a man sat down across from me, looking sheepish.
"Sorry," he said, "these documents are never supposed to leave my hands. I'm just having a really bad day."
"If they're confidential, shouldn't you have a better way of carrying them?" I asked.
"No argument there," he said. "I own a locking briefcase, but I keep forgetting the combination so I hardly ever use it. . So how much of this stuff did you read?"
"It looked like a list of suggestions for changing the way we run the presidential election," I replied. "Am I in trouble now?"
"Nah," he said. "Heck, I'll just tell you the details. A few leaks here and there won't compromise our long-term outlook for success."
"Sounds like some kind of rogue CIA operation," I suggested.
"Oh please," he replied, rolling his eyes. "That crowd is so dysfunctional they couldn't subvert a Friars Club roast. No, this is a private-sector initiative. A consortium of think tanks has been studying ideas to restore credibility to the selection of our chief executive. We need new procedures that emphasize positive outcomes and offer tangible benefits to all participants. In other words: Time to bring private enterprise into the elections."
"You mean like: The 2012 campaign, brought to you by Pepsi?" I wondered.
"The beverage industry can definitely play a major role," he agreed. "Picture this: A tear-off coupon on each ballot that could be redeemed for a free soft drink at every polling place."
"Voting: The pause that refreshes," I offered.
"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "The same creative energy could transform the voter's pamphlet from a boring campaign blather and tedious legislative explanations into an exciting publication. Put the folks at Condé Nast in charge, bring in provocative personalities like Tom Wolfe and Madonna to write candidate profiles, run a few full-page Victoria's Secret ads and they'll sell out before the ink is dry."
"Aren't voters' pamphlets supposed to be free?" I pointed out.
"Whatever. The point is, politics and commerce have a natural synergy. Running our elections like a business makes perfect sense," he said.
"So, in your view, voting is actually a transaction," I said.
"Exactly. Like other business transactions, voters should have a three-day grace period in case they change their minds."
"How will you deal with recounts and potential lawsuits from disgruntled candidates?" I asked.
"With leadership that unites Americans instead of dividing them," he replied. "Election results will be certified by a panel of respected observers who've earned the trust of citizens - Jimmy Carter, Larry King, Judge Judy, and that Simon guy from 'American Idol.' "
"I'm not sure the country will support what you're proposing," I said. "Turning the democratic process into a commercial enterprise is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind."
"It was simpler then," he said. "We now live in a world economy that never sleeps. The president has immense global significance. Selecting the right person for such an important job must be done efficiently, reliably, and offering a high degree of satisfaction to voters."
"Which didn't happen in 2000," I added.
"Precisely," the man said. "And it won't be long before a majority of Americans realize what our group already knows: The selection of modern US presidents is much too important for the government to be in charge."
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.