Reforming US election reforms

Did it ever occur to you that maybe the American election takes too long? Aren't there occasional moments of boredom in all the hubbub? By coincidence the Canadians are now holding one of their quick elections. The call went out July 9 and the vote comes Sept. 4 (in less than a month). From start to finish in Canada it lasts about 60 days. Politicians south of the border could hardly turn around in that time!

Those in the United States are trying to shorten their process, too. Here candidates are theoretically selected by primaries, caucuses, and conventions (unlike the parliamentary system of automatically picking the leaders of the legislature as party banner-carriers). Four years ago there were some 36 state caucuses and primaries in the US. This time the number is about 26. Now there is a move to make it even shorter.

Originally the primaries were a reform move: They were intended to take the nomination away from the political boss in the back room and give it to the voters themselves. Very idealistic, but is it practical? In 1956 Adlai Stevenson exclaimed, ''There may be crazier ways to select a president, but I can't think of one.'' It is still an oddity in the world.

Lloyd Cutler, a former White House counsel, once wondered whether other Western democracies seem relatively orderly and efficient compared with the US system, which seems erratic and unreliable to many. He asked rhetorically whether this is because other democracies have a simpler way of picking their leaders. The parliamentary system helps promote party discipline, he argued, and that is what is lacking in the United States.

Rep. Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona told reporters this week, ''Our system has evolved into a hybrid, complex structure of unduly varied caucuses, primaries, and conventions.'' He has organized a bipartisan group setting out again for another try at the discouraging job of trying to reform the system. It will be going on long after the election.

''The lengthy primary season, excessive campaign spending, and public boredom ,'' Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts told the joint press conference, ''strongly suggest the need for primary election reform.'' He cited a poll made in June by the Associated Press and Media General. Of voting-age Americans, it said, 73 percent agreed that the primary system is too long. Of those wanting change, 83 percent wanted it done by federal laws. ''The Federal Election Commission,'' he continued, ''projected that campaign spending for all races in 1984, including House and Senate, will reach well over $1 billion. Almost a third of a billion will be spent on the presidential race alone.''

A famous American politician commented once on the primary selection system - Walter F. Mondale. I wonder if he has changed his mind now that he has mastered the system and emerged as a presidential candidate. I doubt it; it is just that he has worn the system down, rather than the other way round.

In the Congressional Record for Dec. 4, 1975, he inserted: ''I spent a full year actively seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. In the process I concluded that the manner in which we nominate and elect presidential candidates is badly in need of fundamental and comprehensive review.'' Yes, he said, ''it is fatuous to describe as participatory democracy a nominating system that involved a wretchedly small proportion of the electorate, that in some states encourages Democrats to help choose Republican candidates and vice versa, that grossly distorts the first few primary contests in an election year, and rewards with money and inordinate publicity the states that hold them.''

There's a lot more than that, but you catch the idea.

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