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Getting Out the Vote Made Simple : Democracy will be the winner when voter registration is made easier

July 28, 1991

By now it's a dreary and predictable chain of events: A national, state or local election is held; the voter turnout is appallingly low, and then there are the inevitable editorials decrying the downward trend in participation in democracy.

But there is a practical way to begin to address the problem: Get more Americans registered to vote.

Do newly registered voters indeed vote? Apparently. In states where voter registration is most convenient, turnout rates in 1988 were 12% to 16% percentage points higher than the national average.

Then why haven't more state legislatures, and Congress, made it easier to register to vote--perhaps through an automatic process?

Such suggestions have generated concern, which for the most part has centered on voter fraud. But the potential for fraud is great even in the current hodgepodge system, which too often relies on volunteers who are working for partisan political campaigns.

Voter registration could be made as routine as renewing your driver's license.

A bill that will be reintroduced in September in the Senate would bring what is called universal voter registration to the United States. Sponsored by Sens. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), it is an honest and worthwhile attempt to take the United States out of last place among the major democracies in terms of national-election voting rate.

The problem is that this bill, and earlier versions of it, got mired in partisan politics. Republicans generally liked linking registration to driver's license applications and renewals, but they balked at a provision that would make voter registration part of applications for public assistance and unemployment benefits.

In no case would voter registration be linked to actually qualifying for any benefits, and in no case would any applicant be forced to register to vote; one could simply decline to register by checking off a box on a form.

In states where such procedures are in place, the costs have been minimal, about 33 cents per person registered.

The assumption has been that new voters who are on public assistance and those who are unemployed are likely to vote Democrat. But it's not that simple. The greatest untapped potential among unregistered voters is a constituency that some strategists believe the GOP might score well with--voters 18 to 25 years old.

It's not certain which side of the aisle would have the most to gain from the passage of this proposal. But one sure winner would be democracy.

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