LOW voter turnout is a disturbing aspect of American democracy. Each election year Americans stay on the sidelines by the millions. In 1988 only about half of those eligible voted. Barriers to registration have long been blamed for keeping many potential voters away. Congress is trying to do something about that part of the nonvoting puzzle. The House this week passed a bill that would tie voter registration to applying for or renewing a driver's license. The bill would also require states to allow registration by mail or at any state agency.
These new approaches would make registration a simple, everyday procedure. As things stand, many citizens - particularly the millions who move each year - are unclear about where and how to register.
This effort to broaden the franchise through simpler registration has drawn predictable criticism:
If it's easier, it's more vulnerable to fraud. This new legislation includes safeguards against fraud. It requires voter lists to be checked every four years to ensure people still live at the same address. The bill also stops removal of voters when they fail to vote.
It's expensive for the states. Current procedures have added costs too, such as voter outreach efforts and deputizing of people to help with registration. The House bill includes $50 million to help defray state expenses, an amount in excess of Congressional Budget Office estimates of the cost.
It interferes with state prerogatives. Take a look at history. Voter rights for blacks, women, 18-year-olds all set aside restrictive state practices. Expanded participation in voting is an unqualified national good.
Finally, it favors the Democrats. As House assistant minority leader Newt Gingrich pointed out, those days are over. Republicans have just as good a shot at new voters as Democrats.
At a time of vocal support for emerging democracies elsewhere, this effort to expand American democracy makes especially good sense. The Senate and President Bush should join the House in backing the legislation.