Few things are as fashionable as bemoaning low voter turnout in our elections. In California things are especially bad. Turnout in last March's primary was a dismal 35% of registered voters, and there seem to be well-grounded fears that unappealing candidates in November will lead more voters than ever voting to stay home. According to the authoritative Field Poll, for instance, gubernatorial candidates Bill Simon and Gray Davis are becoming more distasteful to the electorate as Election Day nears. It is as if disdain for the candidates, and the major parties, increases proportionally to their degree of campaigning.
It is no wonder, then, that there is an attempt on the November ballot to overcome resistance or reluctance to vote by providing for last minute voter registration. Proposition 52, Election Day Voter Registration (EDVR), would allow unregistered voters to register at their polling places on election day if they are legally eligible to vote and can show valid identification. The basic argument for the proposition is that voters who are invigorated by the political campaign in its last moments ought to have an opportunity to cast their ballots, despite not having bothered to register before.
Six states employ similar systems and it is widely utilized in other countries. Although states with same-day registration estimate that they have seen 3%-6% increases in turnout, the initiative's backers in California anticipate an increase of as much as 9%.
There is the rub. A second glance raises doubts about EDVR. First, there is the question of why California voting will presumably increase so much compared to other states. The reason is money. The Democrats in California have a huge advantage at present in campaign funds — $60 million more than Republicans as of the June reporting deadline. If that surplus holds, it will be spent to get people to the polls. Remove registration restraints, and the buses will sweep the streets for anybody capable of pulling a polling booth lever or touching a video screen of some sort. The likelihood that there will be many Republicans in those buses, given the disparity in campaign cash in the two parties, is small. One needs to keep in mind that the purpose of the EDVR is to increase the number of voters. It says nothing about better educating voters or trying to develop a responsible electorate.
Same day registration, therefore, may in the long run provide for partisan advantage. It is not much of a surprise that the proposition is largely bankrolled by a wealthy San Francisco liberal, Robert McKay, Jr., whose fortune stems from his father's bringing Taco Bell to the world. The transition from fast food to fast votes was apparently seamless for McKay, who admits that he himself does not "absolutely rule-out" seeking office. On the other hand, Republicans are suspicious of Prop. 52. In the Field Poll, the few Republicans who were aware of it opposed it 40%-28%.
Partisanship, however, is not the only telling question about the EDVR. Among other things, there is a concern over cost. Same day voter registration will require extra poll workers, with added costs for recruitment and training. Statewide, estimates are that it will cost $6 million a year to implement EDVR, but this may be low if the new procedure leads to greater numbers of errors in voting, which seems likely.
EDVR also raises the potential for election fraud. Its backers respond that it increases penalties for fraud such that it will not be a problem. This is arguable, but political experience suggests that where wise guys think they can get away with something, penalties will not restrain them. We have lived through enough political scandals recently to recognize that.
The most telling argument against the EDVR, however, is that it is the wrong response to our current political malaise. Fully 71% of eligible Californians are now registered to vote. There are, then, plenty of potential voters for any election. Our problem is not the unregistered; it is restoring the confidence in the political process of the registered. A responsible and decent democracy depends above all on an involved and interested electorate. We already tend to diminish voter attention by relying on sound bites and emotional appeals. Same-day registration, by encouraging last minute political pitches, is another step in that direction. Over time it is likely to generate more, not less, voter discontent.
James Madison once warned against "the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried." The EDVR, in this respect, attacks the wrong thing. What we need to do is to more seriously undertake the task of speaking intelligently and directly to people and getting them to pay attention to what is at stake in our elections. As a first requirement for this, it does not seem unreasonable to ask people to register before Election Day.