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Voter registration and challenge: The product of planned panic?

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted November 1, 2004

Aggregations of attorneys, Democratic and Republican, are forming in many States, with a view to challenging or defending voter registrations and vote tallies. Although it would be premature to apportion blame, secondary evidence surely suggests that Democrats, more than Republicans, are planning panic. What panic? Rush at the last minute huge numbers of people to register as voters; challenge those the other side is registering; condemn the registration process; denounce poll clerks, judges and other (often volunteer) personnel; predict disaster, fraud, irregularity.

Florida voting had its troubles in 1876, as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (in his capacity as a very readable historian) expertly details in his book, Centennial Crisis, The Disputed Election Of 1876 (Knopf, 2004). Florida again had its voting troubles in 2000. Who knows whether Florida will have trouble this election? It seems sadly sure that some Democrats, and possibly some Republicans (although none is reported), are pursuing a course designed to create chaos or, if chaos occurs otherwise, to aggravate it. The latest report is that the last-minute registration of some 35,000 Florida potential voters is under challenge (which challenge, of course, could be with cause).

A different problem was foisted upon Ohio, a bellwether State. An attempt was made to permit voters to vote in any precinct within their county of residence. Imagine! Half a million or more people in a county and they could vote as far away from their residence as they chose, utterly unknown to personnel at the polling place or to their non-neighbors. Other than fraud or double voting, what could be the purpose? The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit enjoined this prospective outrage.

It seems never to have occurred to State legislators to require a new voter, or a voter who moves from one precinct or ward to another, to register six months, or some other realistic period, in advance of the election. Or perhaps it has occurred but liberal legislators fear too many of their constituents are not self-motivated and cannot be herded to register that far in advance. (Hear the leftwing chorus now, shouting deprivation and discrimination!)

The unfortunate reality is that many citizens upon their own initiative have no strong interest -- some, no interest whatever -- in voting. Witness the low percentages of eligible citizens who actually vote. There should be no compulsion to vote. A citizen theoretically has a duty to vote but in a free society the decision to fulfill that duty is a right.

If a citizen as close to an election as a few months or a few weeks has not manifested the interest to register, that citizen should be obliged to wait until the next election.

People experienced in political campaigns and voter registration, as well as ordinary observation, reveal that many and, almost assuredly most, people who register at the last minute do so in response to herding (even if euphemistically called a "voter drive"). It disproportionately is last-minute registrants who flood registrars and otherwise cause chaos, or worse, when the ballots are tabulated.

Our Founding Fathers (and long after) who voted were almost entirely landowners. Communication and transportation were slow. Big cities were populated in the five figures, not six or seven. Huge metropolitan areas, suburbs and the like did not exist. People knew one another. There was no mass media. That limited (but did not wholly eliminate -- witness the 1828 Andrew Jackson -- John Quincy Adams Election) campaigns of unproved allegations, impossible promises and all manner of irrelevant attention gimmicks.

We cannot return to that quieter, simpler, generally more cerebral era. Yet we could treat voter registration as serious business -- to be attended to in proper time, in an orderly fashion, by individual citizens and not herded hoards. Thereby we vastly would reduce unlawful and fraudulent registrations, lessen the strain (and taxpayer cost) on election personnel and produce a more thoughtful and better informed electorate.

Count on it: Any legislator courageous enough to propose such reasonableness immediately would be accused (depending upon perceived publicity value) of discrimination, racism, elitism. The trend in the past several decades has been just the opposite -- make it easier and easier to register to vote, with less and less proof of eligibility: Terrorists, unlawful immigrants, New Yorkers voting in Florida, anybody with a driver's license or its apparition, name it.

We are paying the price.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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