WHY do George Bush and congressional Republicans want to keep American citizens out of the voting booth?
They don't say that's their intention, of course, but that's the effect of Republicans' continuing opposition to a bill that would make it easier for Americans to register to vote.
The so-called motor-voter law would require states to register eligible voters when they obtain or renew a drivers license. It also would provide for voter registration by other state agencies such as welfare and unemployment offices, would authorize mail-in registration, and would prohibit states from purging the names of nonvoters from the rolls.
The bill was passed by the Senate last week. Now it goes to the House of Representatives, which passed a similar bill in 1990. President Bush appears set to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, though, and motor-voter backers lack the votes to override.
Voter turnout in US elections has been declining for years. It barely exceeds half of all eligible voters in presidential elections, and is lower in off-year congressional elections. The reasons include voter apathy and disenchantment, which won't be cured by legislation. Not to be discounted, though, are obscure and inconvenient procedures in many states that inhibit voter registration. Nearly 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
An important reason that many voters aren't registered is Americans' mobility. After moving to a new state, voters must re-register; often they forget, or are unfamiliar with the new procedures. Few forget to get a new drivers license, however.
Supporters of the motor-voter bill say it would raise voter registration from the current 60 percent of eligible voters to about 90 percent. The rise in voting would not be as dramatic. Still, enhanced registration would beget higher levels of participation in American democracy.
Opponents of the bill claim that it would facilitate vote fraud and would be expensive for the states to administer. The legislation contains safeguards against fraud, however, and the costs to the states wouldn't be budget-busters. What really concerns Republicans (and excites Democrats), one suspects, is the likelihood that many newly registered voters would be minorities, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups that tend to vote Democratic. No citizens should be deterred from registering and voting
for partisan reasons.
Some say there's nothing wrong with requiring citizens to take some initiative to get registered, that voting shouldn't be "too easy." At bottom, that thinking is as exclusionary (and possibly racist) as the old literacy tests and poll taxes. At a time when voter disquiet is so high, and when so many Americans feel left out by the political system, people should be encouraged to become a part of their democracy.
Except to guard against fraud, there's no such thing as making the franchise too easy. The motor-voter bill deserves to be law.