Trying to make presidential elections more compelling and less expensive

Joan Growe says she thinks Minnesota has found one answer to the poor turnout of American voters for elections. The solution: election-day registration. Minnesota allows its voters to register at the same place and time that they vote -- and the results are dramatic. Mrs. Growe, who is secretary of state for Minnesota, proudly observes that in last year's presidential election, 68.5 percent of the eligible voters in her state went to the polls, the highest turnout in the nation. The US average was 53.7 percent.

A blue-ribbon panel, the Commission on National Elections, has been sifting through dozens of such ideas from experts like Mrs. Growe. They're looking for ways to improve America's long, costly, and sometimes confusing method of electing a president every four years.

The panel, headed by two political veterans, Robert Strauss and Melvin Laird, has listened to a star-studded cast of witnesses for the past six months. Now the panel will try to come up with two or three solid ideas to make the quadrennial US election process run more smoothly.

Three major concerns prompted formation of the panel, which is funded privately and works out of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

Perhaps the greatest concern is the long-term decline in American voting. Although there was a small improvement in 1984, Americans still have one of the lowest levels of voter turnout among the Western democracies. If trends continue, less than half of all Americans may soon go to the polls to elect a president.

Rising costs are also a problem. Last year's local, state, and national elections cost a total of $1.8 billion. Experts worry that the need to raise money increases the influence of special-interest groups.

There is also concern about what might be called ``the boredom factor.'' Campaigns are getting longer and longer. The 1988 presidential race is already under way, with George Bush, Jack Kemp, and other Washington hopefuls crisscrossing the country in search of early support. Some experts are concerned that such nonstop campaigning is too much for voters.

The Strauss-Laird panel, however, has found that there are no quick and easy answers to these problems.

Mrs. Growe's suggestion for election-day registration, for example, was greeted with horror by some of the panel members. They complained that it would never work in some major cities that have been troubled by vote fraud, such as Chicago.

Other expert witnesses, such as pollster Patrick Caddell, argued that the current system is basically sound and that any changes should be made with great caution.

Even so, a number of promising ideas have received close attention from the bipartisan, 41-member panel. Among them:

A new national holiday. If election day were a holiday, turnout might rise. Already some state and local government offices close on election day. A holiday would ensure that people with two jobs, or those with a long way to commute, would have plenty of time to vote.

One danger: people might treat the day like any other holiday and go to the beach or the mountains, rather than vote. To discourage this, schools could be kept in session to make it harder for families to leave town.

Free TV and radio time. Broadcasting is expensive. In fact, most of the budget for some campaigns goes into buying radio and TV time. Yet the airwaves are public property. Some experts argue that TV and radio stations, as a public service, should set aside a few hours of free time for major candidates, as is done in some other countries.

Raise contribution limits. The current $1,000 federal ceiling on some contributions is unrealistic, many experts say. A more realistic maximum might be $5,000. The $1,000 ceiling forces candidates to begin their campaigns earlier because they need to line up thousands of donors.

Institutionalize debates. Many political specialists agreed that one of the most useful devices in presidential campaigns is the debate. Steps should be taken to make these a regular event every four years.

Easier registration. There is great debate in this area, as the controversy over Mrs. Growe's suggestion showed. Many states, however, now use a post-card registration system that has put thousands of new voters on the rolls. Other means to encourage registration, such as sign-ups in high schools when students reach age 18, might be expanded.

While the current system has its problems, many experts noted that it is also working pretty well.

Because the current system is cumbersome, long, decentralized, costly, and often frustrating, it provides a good test of the stamina, organizational ability, and judgment of candidates.

Some changes can be made to make the system easier and more comprehensible to voters, experts said. But there's no particular advantage in making it easier on the candidates. As one analyst, Joseph Napolitan, told the panel: No one is forced to run for president. GRAPH: Voter Participation Percentage of eligible voters casting ballots

in presidential elections '84 53.7% '80 52.6% '76 53.5% '72 55.2% '68 60.9% '64 61.9% '60 62.8% '56 59.3% '52 61.6% '48 51.1% '44 56.0% '40 58.9% '36 56.0% '32 52.4% Source: US Census Bureau

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