UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE? I'm for that. Voting is a right, not a privilege? Absolutely. No unreasonable barriers to voter registration? I agree. Government workers should go out of their way to sign up welfare recipients to vote?
Welfare recipients are people who don't work, don't pay taxes, and don't support themselves. Of course there are exceptions, but as a group -- let's face it -- they are among the least educated, least productive, least responsible adults in America. They're also among the least likely to be interested in elections or to follow public debates. If in addition they don't bother to vote, we ought to be grateful. Why would anyone want to coax them into registering?
Yet that is just what Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado and a host of other states are now being pressured to do.
The pressure comes from some of the same organizations that were behind the federal Motor Voter Act, which went into effect 18 months ago. The impact of the new law has been undeniable. In 1995, some 5.5 million Americans registered to vote when they acquired (or renewed) their driver's licenses. Another 4 million registered by mail.
But Motor Voter also lets people register when they apply for public assistance. Show up at your local welfare office to collect AFDC, food stamps, or Medicaid, and a caseworker, if you wish, will sign you up to vote. Welfare agencies nationwide have been registering more than 100,000 new voters a month.
But that's not enough for the pressure groups.
The Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Fund -- Human SERVE, for short -- complains that only 1.3 million welfare mothers were added to the voter rolls in 1995, instead of "more than 5 million." It is particularly sour on states that have registered only a small percentage of their welfare populations, accusing them of "obstruction" and "resistance." Meaning -- what? That would-be voters are intimidated? That registration forms are torn up? No: that welfare caseworkers don't make a point of asking every single AFDC recipient if she wants to become a registered voter.
Officially, SERVE's goal is pure, nonpartisan small "d" democracy: "All we want is universal access to the franchise," says Jo-Anne Chasnow, the group's associate director. In fact, what SERVE wants is to preserve and expand the welfare state and swell the poverty industry that battens on it.
In its March 1996 "National Plan of Action," SERVE bristles with militant liberal rhetoric. "There's a war on children," it warns, and "also a war on women." It urges welfare advocates to "inform clients that government is slashing the services and benefits they and their children receive. That could be a powerful motivating message on election day." And if that's not motivation enough, there is this: "The Christian Right, with considerable effect, is signing up congregants in church auditoriums."
For SERVE and its allies in the big-government left -- the National Association of Social Workers, the Food Research and Action Center, the Child Welfare League of America -- registering welfare mothers is not about expanding democracy. It is about expanding their own budgets and influence. Its tactics are cynical, and effective.
When Massachusetts found itself chastised on Page 1 of the Globe -- in a story based on SERVE's figures -- for not "turning its poorest citizens into voters," the Department of Transitional Assistance quickly promised to be more aggressive. From now on, it vowed, everyone who applies for welfare will be asked, right off: Are you registered to vote? New signs will be posted on the walls. More notices will be mailed to every recipient. "We're really trying to do what we can to improve the situation," an apologetic spokesman said.
What he should have said was that if citizens have so little interest in democratic self-rule that they won't even register to vote, the state isn't going to beg them to do so. Voter registration is not exactly an Olympic-class challenge: One trip to the town clerk, and you're registered until you move. Someone for whom that's too great a burden is someone who shouldn't be voting anyway.
No one is disenfranchised in this country. Unlike days of old, there are no poll taxes, literary tests, gender barriers, or property requirements to come between any citizen and the voting booth. If US elections are marked by chronically low turnout, it is not because voters are kept away. It is because they stay away. Some are apathetic, some are ignorant, some are simply self-centered. Why badger such people to register? What would they bring to an election?
If SERVE wants to mobilize an army of voting welfare mothers, let it do so on its own time and at its own expense. No welfare caseworker -- no state employee, period -- should have to spoon-feed voting rights to anyone, least of all people on the dole. If they can figure out how to get food stamps, they can figure out how to get registered. They choose not to? So be it. American democracy won't suffer.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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