Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Voter registration drives: The good, the bad, and the ugly

A lot of people think voter registration efforts are a good thing. After all, shouldn’t every American participate in the electoral process that is such an important part of our nation and what makes it special?

A voter registration drive seeks to register to vote those who are eligible but not registered. Such drives are sometimes undertaken by non-partisan groups and are aimed at the general population.

Sometimes, however, they are undertaken for partisan purposes, and are aimed at specific demographic groups that are likely to vote for a particular candidate. One such effort so ubiquitously in the news lately is that of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The goal of ACORN and its Project Vote voter registration drives is “to empower low-income and minority communities by giving them a voice in the political process” and “working to increase public participation in our democratic process,” according to the organization’s Web site. ACORN also says that it “hopes that expanding the electorate will result in more candidates who appeal to historically underrepresented voting populations.”

Although it has a highly partisan edge, ACORN’s motive seems to be aiming to help people who are outside the mainstream of society by bringing them into the election process. But as you likely have read and heard, the foul stain on ACORN’s image goes much deeper and is far more sinister than mere partisanship.

In the past few years, eight of the organization’s employees pleaded guilty to federal election fraud in Missouri, and five others in Washington State. Reports of phony registration forms are legion: ACORN often turns in hundreds or thousands of fraudulent registrations during its drives, overloading state election officials who must sort the good registrants from the bad. ACORN’s efforts represent all that’s wrong with voter registration drives.

We might argue that those organizations that register legitimate and eligible voters without sparking a criminal investigation are doing good work, but we must realize that there is far more to exercising one’s right to vote than merely registering to vote and going to the polls.

Voting is a right, but like all rights it carries with it responsibility and people who vote must put out the effort to be sufficiently informed to make a reasoned decision about candidates and issues. One can argue that they might also be expected to take the initiative to register on their own if they are truly interested in participating in the election process. So, if people who are otherwise able don’t care enough about voting to register themselves and go to the polls, they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to vote.

This may be especially true for young people, many of whose abysmal ignorance of the candidates and issues should disqualify them from voting. This phenomenon has been recently demonstrated by John Stossel of ABC News. He went to a college campus and asked young people there basic questions about the United States government. Some showed substantial knowledge about their country, but most did not know basic information like how many states are in the union, how many U.S. Senators represent each state, and how many Senators are in the U.S. Senate. Do we want people with so little basic knowledge about their country helping to pick its president?

Thinking that perhaps a college campus was not the best place to find educated voters, with all that implies, Mr. Stossel moved to Washington, DC, and did a man-on-the-street survey showing photographs of prominent people to participants, most of whom were young people. The photographs were of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, candidates Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, and Sarah Palin, and also Judge Judy of television fame.

Senators Obama and McCain were routinely recognized; Gov. Palin and Sen. Biden less so, and some confused Mr. Biden with Mr. McCain. None recognized Justice Ginsberg, but most recognized Judge Judy.

Mr. Stossel spoke with Marc Brownstein and Andy Bernstein, the co-chairs of HeadCount, an organization that registers voters, and suggested that perhaps people who are uninformed really ought not to be voting. Mr. Brownstein called that “an argument that really, really smacks against everything we hold dear as Americans.” “Democracy,” opined Mr. Bernstein, “is not about taking the most educated portion of society and having them decide.” Presumably, he thinks those who recognize Judge Judy or think there are 12 U.S. Senators from each state are as able as educated voters to make good decisions at the ballot box.

However, despite the myopic view of Mr. Brownstein and Mr. Bernstein, being knowledgeable about candidates and issues is an essential element in an electoral system that truly reflects the will of the populace, and is so transparently obvious that it ought to be unnecessary to mention it.

Uninformed voters are easily manipulated, and as likely to make a bad choice as a good one. These people are more than just uninformed, they are dangerous.

People must demonstrate that they know how to drive a car before they get a drivers license. Should we do less for something as important as voting?

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