It seems to be taken for granted that a massive turnout of voters on election day is a good thing, a wholesome thing, an altogether splendid thing. Registering to vote is seen as a civic virtue. I view these assumptions as piffle. Therefore I rise to oppose Sen. Wendell Ford's bill to fix national requirements for voter registration.
The senator's bill (S.250) came out of the Rules Committee the other day on a largely party-line vote, with all the Democrats in favor and all the Republicans, except for Mark Hatfield of Oregon, strongly opposed. The Republicans have the better case.They advance four reasons for killing the bill. It tramples upon sound traditions of federalism. It carries a substantial potential for fraud. The bill would impose unwarranted costs upon the states and localities. Finally, there is no evidence that its provisions would in any way improve the quality of governance in the United States.
The bill would require every state to institute a uniform system of "motor-voter" registration. Everyone who applied for a driver's license thereby would be registered as a voter unless the applicant specifically declined to complete a registration form. The bill also would require every state to accept a system of mail registration to be designed by the Federal Election Commission. Thirdly, the bill would require the states to make voter registration forms available at public offices, notably at local offices of public welfare.
The purpose of these procedures, as the committee report makes clear, is "to promote" the exercise of our right to vote. But why, it may be asked, should the right to vote be specially "promoted?" The government does not "promote" the exercise of free speech. Neither does it "promote" the right to free exercise of religion.
The doctrine of federalism is the doctrine that views the states as laboratories of political experiment. No feature of our system is of greater value. The important point here is that the states are indeed experimenting with ways to enhance voter registration.
Michigan pioneered motor-voter registration in 1975. Ohio came along in 1977. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have some form of motor-voting in operation. Idaho, New Mexico and West Virginia will join the list this summer. Montana's new procedure becomes effective in October.
Procedures vary slightly in each of these jurisdictions, which is precisely the way it ought to be. The states must be permitted to tinker, to try this, to discard that, to see what works most efficiently. To impose a single uniform system before these experiments have been well-tested is to engage in folly.
The Senate committee heard testimony from state witnesses that the costs of implementing a national system would be far greater than the $14 million projected by FEC Chairman John Warren McGarry. Illinois alone estimates its annual costs at $30 million, New Jersey and California at $20 million.
And all for what? The Congressional Research Service looked at the experience of 10 states that have tried motor-voting registration. As a percentage of voting age population, the turnout actually decreased in seven of the 10 after motor-voting became an available alternative. Only North Carolina, Ohio and Vermont reported increases.
This is puny evidence. It cannot justify a new federal program that would undercut a responsibility the states historically have borne. Go away, Wendell Ford! Let the voters be as apathetic or as contented as they want to be.