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Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 11/12/2000

Changing the way we conduct our elections

We still don't know who won the closest presidential election in American history. But it's clear to most of us that changes should be made in the way we conduct our elections and - especially - in how we cover them.

Canada will hold a national election three weeks after ours. Its campaign will last just over a month. Ours seemed to go on forever, and the end is not yet in sight.

Our political systems are different, so it probably wouldn't be wise, even if it were possible, for us to duplicate the admirable brevity of Canadian electoral campaigns. But we could profit from their example.

Our interminable election campaigns hurt us in three significant ways:

First, the bilious partisanship that naturally emerges impedes the bipartisan cooperation and trust necessary for governing.

Second, the longer campaigns last, the more they cost. And the more they cost, the more influence is accorded special-interest groups that fund campaigns. Vastly greater sums were spent in this election cycle than in any preceding one, to no apparent increase in the edification of voters, and with ample evidence that the endless stream of political commercials was turning people off.

Third, the longer election campaigns last, the more bored with them we become. Boredom may be the single greatest reason why only half of us who were eligible bothered to vote in an election that's been a nail-biter for months.

The high points of this campaign - though this is like talking about the mountains in Kansas - were the debates. There is little about George W. Bush and Al Gore that we learned from their endless commercials that we did not learn from the debates ... or would have, had we actually watched them.

They would have been better if they had been real debates, not clumsily managed joint appearances. The purpose of debates should be to give candidates the opportunity to express their opinions, and to give us the opportunity to assess their intelligence and character. Somehow, they've become exercises in massaging the egos of journalists.

The low point of the campaign was the news coverage of it. Reporting on issues of public policy and on the performance of the candidates in office was subordinated to horse-race journalism. We were inundated daily with stories, based on opinion polls, that this candidate was surging; that one was faltering. The volatility we saw was less a product of changes in voter sentiment than a reflection of the differing assumptions and sample sizes used by pollsters.

The television news divisions capped a poor performance by blowing the coverage election night. The networks told us that Mr. Gore had taken Florida; then took it back; then awarded Florida to Mr. Bush; then took it back again. Suppose there were a rule that said no broadcast network could make projections until after 9 p.m. EST, or after the polls closed in a particular state, whichever is later.

Suppose further we moved election day to the third Saturday in October. That would allow for a campaign of at least seven weeks from Labor Day, 10 to 12 weeks from the national conventions. That's plenty of time for a thorough airing of issues, but not so long as to make us all nauseous. And if we held elections on a day on which few Americans have to work, maybe more of us would vote.

Suppose finally that we built the campaign around four real debates, each devoted to a specific topic (e.g., education, foreign policy, Social Security). Have both the presidential and vice presidential candidates participate. Use the classic debate format. Have a moderator only to keep time, and pick a moderator with enough spine to enforce the rules.

Conclude the campaign with a joint appearance by the presidential candidates, in which they would respond to questions phoned in by voters. Use the format C-SPAN uses - one line for Democrats, another for Republicans, a third for independents - and rotate questions among them. Hold this four or five days before the election. That's time enough for the other side to respond if you have a candidate, like Mr. Gore, who tends to make stuff up, but close enough to the election so more of us will vote on the basis of the impression the candidates made, not on the basis of impressions their admen made for them.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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