Electoral molasses

The headline "Florida lawmakers approve election system overhaul" did encourage me. It seems that in 2004 we won't have to go through another presidential election recount nightmare in that state.

Also, it seems that Congress may soon enact some sorely needed campaign-finance legislation. Let's hope it won't be sidetracked in the House.

But what really concerns me is that nothing is being done to change a presidential primary system in which the nominees of both parties are usually chosen early by a relatively minute proportion of the voting public.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, the two parties moved away from a nominating system in which political leaders, often big-city bosses, were heavily involved in picking the candidates, and adopted a system that puts its reliance on voter choices in the primaries.

It was supposed to be a major move toward democracy. Instead, it has worked out that choosing the parties' presidential nominees has gone to those who vote in the early primaries. In a way, it can be said that the bulk of the party voters have been disenfranchised by this "democratic" system.

A year ago, former GOP Sen. William Brock, who headed a Republican group looking into this primary-voting problem, came to a Monitor breakfast with an announcement of a plan to change the Republican primaries so that many more voters would be involved in selecting the party's presidential nominee.

He told us that both GOP national chairman Jim Nicholson and Democratic national chairman Joe Andrew had expressed enthusiasm for the plan when he had met with them the previous week.

In Senator Brock's multistage plan, the smallest-population states would vote first and the largest states would vote last.

The plan, as Mr. Brock explained it, would make it difficult for any candidate to amass a majority of delegates until late in the primaries - thus bringing voters from all over the country into the presidential-nomination process.

Brock talked as though, at long last, primary-election reform was at hand, with either this plan or a variation of it going into effect four years hence.

But such reform got nowhere at the Republican convention, where such a plan required delegate backing before going to the state legislatures. There was no plan under consideration at the Democratic convention.

So it will be about another eight years, at a minimum, before we can get such a needed change. I'm disappointed. But I'm even more disappointed that I've seen no signs of unhappiness among politicians, press, or public that this reform didn't get off the ground. What I call "television vote reform" isn't getting anywhere, either: TV anchors will be able to make those damaging early-election-result calls in 2004 - just as they did last November.

Yes, there has been some more repentance from television anchors and executives. But they continue to put the blame on the organizations that did the exit polling and made the bad projections for them.

They now tell us that all will be well next time, because these organizations will be doing a better job. Perhaps they will. But how can we be sure?

I wish television would end its exit polling. But it probably won't. The television people say they are simply supplying the public's need for information. But we all know that this polling and the risky projections come from the competitive effort of one television network trying to get out ahead of the others.

I think the country would survive if we voters had to wait for the final, actual counting in each state. But it isn't going to happen.

Perhaps if voting would end in all states at precisely the same time (making it, say, 7 p.m. in California, 9 p.m. in Chicago, and 10 p.m. in New York) it would solve these TV-related problems - provided that television would stand by an agreement not to report on election outcomes until the polls in each state had closed.

But I see little movement in that direction. I talked to one Connecticut congressman who said, "It's hard enough getting (poll) workers to work until 7 p.m. How would we get them to work until 10:00?"

And a California politician said, "That would give the Easterners more time to vote in the evening and not be fair to us."

So - as I started out this column - we are making some election-reform progress. But it is slow. Very, very slow.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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