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Easy voting brings low participation

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 6, 2001

Former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have come up with a series of recommendations aimed at increasing participation in national elections. Among the proposals the former presidents have put forth are (a) to hold elections on a national holiday, such as Veterans' day; (b) to make convicted felons eligible to vote after they have served time; (c) to permit people who aren't on the voter rolls on election day to vote, sorting out their eligibility in the days after the election. There are other recommendations as well.

With all due respect to these former rivals, I don't think any of these ideas has merit. I was glad to see that President George W. Bush gave these ideas only a lukewarm reception. He called the Ford/Carter report "a framework for election reform."

The truth is simply this: The easier we have made it to vote, the lower the voter participation. It stands to reason. The vote used to be regarded as a privilege. A citizen had to be 21 years old to participate. That citizen had to be registered. Often registration rules were fairly strict. They varied from state to state. Some states required that the voter be registered 90 days before the general election. Many states purged voters rolls often, so if a voter claimed to live at a certain address and didn't, he would find himself unable to vote at the next election. Despite all sorts of restrictions, voter participation was generally high.

Now we have lowered the eligible voter age to 18. The theory was if someone could be asked to fight for the nation, he should be able to vote. The lowest proportion of participation in the political process is among those of voting ages between 18 and 21. The easier we have made it to register to vote, the less interest in voting.

Federal courts and state legislatures fell all over themselves during the 1960s and 1970s to abolish obstacles to voter eligibility. Southern states used to give a simple literacy test to voters. Those who couldn't read were ruled ineligible. That test was abolished by the courts, as were the poll taxes aimed at suppressing the Black vote. But legislatures contributed significantly to doing away with obstacles to registration as well. Now in many states, such as Wisconsin, it is possible to register and vote on Election Day. Representative Mark Neumann was a Senate candidate in 1998 from that state. He would have been elected to the Senate had it not been for 50,000 voters, many of them University of Wisconsin students who were unregistered and showed on election day to vote for a local liberal Congressional candidate, Tammy Baldwin. While they were there, they voted for the incumbent Democratic Senator as well. Neumann lost by 30,000 votes. Despite that exception, overall voter participation in the state declined from previous years.

Giving people a day off isn't going to increase voter participation unless we make voting mandatory as is the case in many European nations. That would really go against the American spirit.

No doubt Ford and Carter mean well. They are part of the goo-goo (good government) faction in American politics. But few of the reforms advanced by the goo-goos in the past have had the desired result and I am not convinced that these proposals would either. The Motor Voter law, one of the prime reforms passed in recent years, prevents states from purging voter lists of people who have died or moved away. The result is that many fraudulent votes are now being cast in each election.

If anything, we should be going in the other direction. States would be better off making the vote more exclusive than less. Once people understood that it again was a privilege to vote and the voter had to protect his eligibility, he would again begin to view voting differently. No one wants to return to the days of poll taxes and unreasonable restrictions on the voter. But the idea that the easier we make voting the better off we will be is simply false. And since the Ford/Carter initiative is based on that premise, it should be rejected. ESR

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

Correction: Kenneth Morgan points out that Paul Weyrich, in this commentary incorrectly stated that overall voter participation in the 1998 election was not higher compared to previous off-year elections. Morgan notes that 1,752,000 voters cast ballots in the 1998 U.S. Senate race compared to 1,565,000 in the 1994 U.S. Senate race and 1,381,000 in the 1990 gubernatorial race. Also, says Morgan, Senator Russell Feingold(D-WI) defeated his challenger, then-U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann (R), by 37,000 votes, not 30,000 votes.

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