STANDING up for democracy sometimes entails casting unfashionable votes - or, in the case of President Bush, vetoes. That is what the president did when he vetoed the National Voter Registration Act, the so-called "motor-voter" bill. He stood up for democracy. Is it the politically correct thing to do? No. Is it the right thing to do? Yes.
In a perfect society, all citizens would take an interest in public affairs and faithfully vote. Unfortunately, wishing will not make it so and neither will the motor-voter bill. Granted, motor-voter would register more people, but it would not drive them to the polls on election day. In other words, as the bill's sponsor finally admitted, motor-voter will not increase voter turnout.
Instead, motor-voter will make states spend money they do not have and lead to increased vote fraud. This is too high a price for any democracy to pay in the quest for higher turnout.
The most inane argument in support of motor-voter is that the present hodgepodge of state laws somehow makes registration exceedingly complicated and difficult. This hodgepodge is not a problem unless one desires to vote in multiple states - an illegal act known as vote fraud.
Further, the motor-voter bill is another in a long line of unfunded federal mandates thrust on the states by a Congress unwilling to make tough fiscal decisions in Washington. Once again, we see a debt-ridden Congress writing blank checks on the accounts of state governments who must, by law, balance their budgets. The buck stops at the states and, eventually, something has to give - human services, or police and fire protection. The irony of the motor-voter bill is that it requires states to register vo ters at public-assistance agencies, while draining away funds for public assistance.
The congressional sponsors of motor-voter claim their bill would not really cost that much. If so, then Congress should figure out a way to pay for it other than dumping the responsibility on states. If, in fact, it would cost hundreds of millions - as both Democratic and Republican governors contend - then the bill's sponsors should muster the courage to pay for it. For Congress to dodge the cost issue altogether (by sticking it to the states) is irresponsible, if nothing new.
Aside from objections regarding cost and fraud is another central question: Why?
The motor-voter bill is a solution in search of a problem. Registering to vote, in any state, is not an onerous task. At most, it requires a passing interest in voting a few weeks prior to the election. Is that too much to ask? If it is, then this society has become pathetically lazy and unappreciative of the sacrifices previous generations made to secure this great democracy.
Even if we tailor voter-registration laws to political couch potatoes, there is no guarantee that voter turnout will increase. Over the last 30 years, registration has become steadily and significantly easier. In the meantime, turnout has steadily and significantly decreased. History does not argue in favor of motor-voter.
The Congressional Research Service studied 10 states with motor-voter registration. Conclusion: there was no evidence that motor-voter increases voter turnout.
The General Accounting Office studied why voter turnout is so high in certain European and Latin American countries. Conclusion: coercion and bribery are the only sure means of increasing voter turnout.
Finally, the bipartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate studied voter registration and turnout. Conclusion: declining participation cannot be attributed to problems in registration and voting law.
The motor-voter bill is illustrative of Congress's deplorable tendency to pass feel-good legislation of dubious merit, without facing up to the cost factor. If more people were made aware of this sorry track record, voter turnout certainly would increase and perhaps some of the offenders in Congress would be turned out of their jobs. Now that would be good for democracy.