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Are we ready for Sunday voting?

With the campaign in its final month, the candidates' strategists are advising them to say little that is new and do even less about answering the persistent questions about how, if elected, they would make America strong and prosperous again.

Millions of private and public dollars will be spent on advertisements to woo the voters. And the outcome of the election is likely to be determined by the smallest number yet of eligible Americans voting. It is a record and a situation of which we should be ashamed.

This half-century's low and declining voter turnouts put the United States far behind any other industrialized democracy. Foreign leaders think our presidents lack a solid base of domestic political support to conduct policy effectively and increasingly ignore U.S. initiatives and advice. At home, the effect has been to disenfranchise millions.

While the candidates will urge more people to vote, their pollsters know that even a slight increase in turnout should be the last thing they would want because it could affect the election in unknown ways. As a result, millions who could vote won't be encouraged to do so.

For at least a quarter-century, the theory and practice of presidential campaigning have created candidates who, in the end, work hard only on issues that can cause a few tens of thousands of voters in a handful of states to vote against their opponent.

There is an increasing emphasis on negative ads, not debating, and negative campaigning because such appeals are far more cost-effective than voter registration drives.

Appeals for support based on what the candidates have promised to do about the nation's problems, or how they handle each other in a televised debate, do very little to sway the voters, the record shows.

One way to foster change is to make it easier for people to vote. The 1996 presidential election should be held on a Sunday.

"Never on a Sunday" has been an American tradition, in part because religious leaders _ and religious Americans _ originally wanted the Sabbath free from secular worries and preoccupations. Over the past three decades, however, we have all changed: church is shorter and commerce is brisk most Sunday afternoons.

The real reason behind adopting the practice of holding the presidential election on a weekday was corruption. In the age of political machines, it was the easiest way to assure that workers voted the way they were instructed by unions or employers.

From historical accounts of most election days in that era, voters did little work following the exercise of their civic duty, since the machines also provided free drinks at the local saloon for those who came with evidence of having cast a ballot. Now, voting on a weekday is a hassle for most _ it can take two or three hours to vote in some urban precincts _ and hardly a good reason to close public schools. Polling places are understaffed, too, because there is a shortage of volunteers.

Sunday voting would solve these problems. It is hard to imagine that such a move would fail to encourage greater voter turnout. Even if this were uncertain, the prospect would provide candidates with the challenge of developing a campaign that appealed to larger constituencies.

Allan E. Goodman is associate dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Scripps Howard News Service