SENATOR SCOTT BROWN is right. For the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be mailing voter-registration forms to nearly 480,000 welfare recipients — at a cost to taxpayers of more than $275,000 — is indeed "outrageous," as the Republican incumbent declared last week. The vast get-out-the-welfare-vote campaign "smells wrong," he says. So it does, but not for the reason he claims.
The key problem with the mass-mailing nudging everyone on the state's welfare rolls to register to vote isn't that it was prompted by a lawsuit filed by several left-wing advocacy groups, one of which -- Demos -- is chaired by the daughter of Brown's leading challenger, Elizabeth Warren. It isn't that public funds and records are being deployed to drum up votes among people considerably more likely to support Democrats instead of Republicans. And it isn't that state officials agreed to settle the activists' lawsuit so quickly as to suggest the whole thing was choreographed in advance — a ploy to benefit the party that dominates Bay State politics and already controls the rest of the congressional delegation.
What's truly objectionable here is the goal that supposedly justifies the whole operation: the idea that states should do all they can to make registering to vote and casting a ballot as easy as possible.
Coaxing welfare recipients to vote isn't a new idea. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 — the "Motor Voter" law — states are required to provide anyone applying for a driver's license, or for public assistance, with the chance to register to vote. Motor Voter also obliges states to accept voter registrations by mail, with no proof of residence or citizenship required -- an obvious invitation to chicanery. I once registered a cat to vote in three different states, then wrote a column describing just how easy it had been to exploit Motor Voter's loopholes.
Not surprisingly, voter rolls are often found to be padded with bogus or illegal registrations. In 2004, the New York Daily News reported that 46,000 registered New York City voters were simultaneously registered in Florida — and that at least 1,000 of them had voted twice in the same election. In many cities today, journalist John Fund and legal scholar Hans von Spakovsky observe in Who's Counting? — a new book on the fraud and sloppiness that plague American elections — there are more names on the voter rolls than the total number of adults enumerated by the US Census.
Yet none of this seems to shakes the popular belief that everyone should be pushed to participate in elections — that higher voter turnout is good for American democracy, and that anything that makes voting more likely should therefore be encouraged. Even if it means sending absentee ballots to the occasional cat. Or cajoling people to register when they sign up for food stamps, without even asking whether they're eligible to vote.
Motor Voter is only part of the problem. Voters in most of the country no longer have to wait until Election Day to exercise their franchise. In several states this year polling places will be opening as early as September. Other states allow residents to request an absentee ballot without having to give a reason, while at least two states, Washington and Oregon, now conduct all their elections by mail. Some jurisdictions have even begun experimenting with voting over the Internet.
This isn't rational public policy, it's a fetish. We have gone overboard with this notion that voting must be as effortless and convenient as possible, and that even people with no interest in voting ought to be wheedled or hectored into voting anyway.
Higher voter turnout is no proof of civic health. Voting is only a means, not the end, of democratic self-government. Of course every citizen has the right to vote, including those who are ignorant, apathetic, or indifferent. But why should Americans who take their vote seriously want to increase electoral participation by those who don't?
Registering to vote isn't complicated. By and large, Americans who don't vote don't want to vote. In 2008 the Census Bureau found that by far the largest share of unregistered voters (46 percent) reported that they were "not interested in the election [or] not interested in politics." Their nonparticipation is rational, and we should respect it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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