AMERICANS say Congress and the news media both have key roles to play in reforming the way the nation elects its leaders.
A new study, conducted under the auspices of George Washington University, found a wide public consensus that Congress should take decisive steps to make elections more competitive. One popular idea was to provide all candidates with free broadcast time. Citizens also want Congress to cut down on government-paid mass mailings that are used by officeholders to boost their reelection chances; and they want more information about who contributes to campaigns.
On the other hand, the oft-promoted idea of term limits for members of Congress did not fare well among a test group of 230 citizens, who took part in 38 regional forums across the Midwest.
Funded by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, the forums scrutinized the media's role in elections as well. Participants said they wanted TV and newspapers to put more emphasis on the substance of political campaigns, while downplaying scandals, ``horse-race'' reporting, and sound-bite journalism.
Lawrence Hansen, director of the Democracy Agenda Project at George Washington, says of the participants: ``These folks covered a lot of ground, including some policy territory that is intellectually and philosophically rugged. In the end, they pieced together a practical ... blueprint for making elections more competitive.''
Each group met for a total of seven hours in large cities like Chicago and Detroit as well as smaller communities like Spring Green, Wis., and Tell City, Ind.
However, the participants stumbled on one area: campaign-finance reform. Just like Congress, they were unable to reach a compromise on what may be the two toughest election topics - campaign-spending limits and public financing of congressional campaigns.
The strongest feelings among the test group involved ``franking,'' or tax-supported mailings by members of Congress. Members send out millions of dollars worth of franked mail, most of it mass mailings designed to promote reelection efforts. Often, congressmen spend more on franked mail, at government expense, than their opponents do on their entire campaigns.
Eight-seven percent of the participants in the study would revise the current system of franking. Nearly half (47 percent) would ban all unsolicited mass mailings. Most others would reduce the number of mailings; and only 2 percent would keep the present system.
Another political custom opposed by participants was the authority of elected officials to design their own districts. Many would like to see future congressional districts designed by bipartisan or nonpartisan bodies. The dominant political parties in the various states presently clump together voters in ways that elect the maximum number of Democrats or Republicans.
The citizens' top recommendation to journalists was to print more stories that arm the voters with the information they need to make intelligent decisions.
They would also refrain from printing or broadcasting unsubstantiated rumors about candidates, despite pressure from competitors to do so. And they would give candidates more news space and air time to explain their positions.
One recent media development is popular. These citizens think the press is correct in devoting more of its resources to evaluate ``the truthfulness and fairness of candidate advertising.''