At the last presidential election only 54 percent of the voters bothered to vote. This year a great many voters seem even less satisfied with a probable choice between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. Is there a better way of choosing candidates?
After the turbulent democratic Chicago convention in 1968 that nominated Hubert Humphrey some felt that the real will of the party was not represented. Three Democratic commissions examined the matter. They encouraged a process already under way: this reduced the role of the party elite (or "boses") in the screening process and encouraged participation of the rank and file, largely in state primaries.
In 1968, 17 primaries picked about 40 percent of the convention delegates. In 1976, 30 primaries picked 75 percent. In 1980, 35 primaries will pick 80 percent. Critics charge this "participatory" system has gone alarmingly far. On the other hand, supporters of the new emphasis cite the case of Sen. Estes Kefauver in 1952 when he sept all the primaries except one, but the party leadership preferred Adlai Stevenson, the reform Governor of Illinois, and nominated him.It was an example of the old screening process. (For balance, it must be remembered that the screening process once gave the nation Warren Harding, from a "smoke-filled room.")
What's wrong with the current process? Well, it's enormously cumbersome. An election takes a couple of years. Jimmy Carter started running three years ahead of time. Ronald Reagan has been running eight years. The candidate, it is charged, must quit public office and take his case not to his political peers and the professionals who know him, but to the amateurs in the various state primaries.
Commenting sourly on the system. Dr. Austin Ranney, resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute here, observes that since the reforms we have had four presidential candidates: "One was the first president in history to be forced to resign from office. Another received the lowest vote a presidential candidate has ever gotten from a major party (George McGovern.) The third was the first president since Herbert Hoover to be denied re-election. (Gerald Ford). And the fourth now has the lowest showing in the polls of any incumbent president since polls have been taken."