'Motor voter' dumbs down democracy
by Jeff Jacoby
JEMIMA IS NOT YET 25, so she never had a chance to "vote often and early for James Michael Curley," who died in 1958. But the crooked legend of Boston politics -- who was, not always at different times, a congressman, a mayor, a Massachusetts governor, and a prison inmate -- would surely have admired Jemima's electoral diligence in 1996.
Not that Jemima went to the polls last week. She didn't even leave the house. She didn't have to. Weeks earlier, she had gotten an absentee ballot from the Board of Elections in Cleveland. And from the Board of Election Commissioners in Chicago, Ill. And from the Election Department in Brookline, Mass. For the price of three stamps, she was able to vote in three cities -- without being a legal resident of any of them.
It was easy.
Under the National Voter Registration Act -- the "motor voter law" -- states are required to accept voter registrations by mail. No longer can citizens be asked to make a trip to town hall or the county office. No longer do they have to provide proof of residence or citizenship. In fact, they don't have to exist. Motor voter obliges election officials to add to the voter list any name mailed in on a properly filled-out registration form. Anyone so registered can then request an absentee ballot -- by mail, of course. The system is not only open to manipulation, it invites it.
Which is perfectly fine with the activists who clamored to get motor voter on the books. Just ask Richard Cloward, executive director of Human SERVE, the New York-based lobby that led the fight. "It's better to have a little bit of fraud," Cloward told CBS News, "than to leave people off the rolls who belong there."
There was a time when the only people who "belonged" on the rolls were those who made it their business to register. If that involved some slight effort, such as a one-time visit to the town clerk's office, it was a small enough price to pay for the great privilege of becoming a voter.
No more. The theory behind motor voter is no one should ever have to overcome any hurdle, however trivial, in order to register to vote. A trip to city hall? Too arduous. Some evidence of legal residence, such as a driver's license? Unreasonable. A birth certificate or passport to prove US citizenship? Too onerous.
Many voter registration crusaders go further and insist that election officials shouldn't wait to be approached by would-be voters. They want piles of registration blanks set out at libraries and cafeterias. They want caseworkers aggressively registering welfare recipients and food stamp applicants. They want 800 numbers set up so callers can get registration forms -- already filled out and stamped -- by phone. Nothing is to stand in the way of swelling the voter rolls. Not even a voter's own indifference, ignorance, or incompetence to cast a ballot.
Had Jemima wanted to, she could have registered and voted in all 50 states. She could have registered not just in Chicago, but in every Illinois town from Rockford to Carbondale. Using 11 different names, she could have voted 11 absentee ballots in Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District -- and if she had voted them all for Democrat Joe Hoeffel, who lost to incumbent Rep. John Fox by 10 votes, she could have changed the outcome. Motor voter does more than make such election fraud possible. It makes it probable.
Some enthusiasts, not content to trivialize registration, want to do the same to voting itself. In the view of Phil Keisling, Oregon's secretary of state, no voter should ever have to bestir himself to vote. It is too much, he says, to expect citizens to make a 10-minute stop at their polling place on Election Day. After all, that might require "finding a parking space, arranging and paying for a baby sitter, getting off work early, or braving bad weather." Imagine, having to take an umbrella just to go vote.
Keisling's "solution?" Conduct all voting by mail, as Oregon already does for local and special elections. Like L.L. Bean catalogs and supermarket circulars, ballots in Oregon are junk-mailed to every registered voter weeks before Election Day. No attempt is made to find out whether a voter has moved or died -- or intends to vote. Cheating has become easier than ever. From partisan postal workers dumping ballots in the trash to political operatives "helping" nursing home patients vote, Oregon's election rules have opened the door to campaign dirty-trickery.
Motor voter and vote-by-mail are hawked as magic solutions to public apathy and declining turnout. Some solutions. Last week turnout sank to its lowest level since the Coolidge administration. The drop was especially severe in Oregon, where turnout fell 12 percent from the last presidential election -- a worse showing than in 45 other states.
Dumbing down registration and voting does not make elections more meaningful. It does democracy no honor to be treated like a Publisher's Clearinghouse mailing.
Actually, that's a bad analogy. Jemima could never have tricked Publisher's Clearinghouse into sending her three sweepstakes entries. Yet she had no difficulty getting ballots from three different states. Anyone who thinks motor voter enhances elections ought to ask Jemima how easy it was to exploit.
Not that she'll give you an answer. Jemima, I forgot to mention, is my cat.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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