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Let 'Motor Voter' Pick Up Lost Souls

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1992.


President Bush now has a chance to strike a blow for democracy without sending troops to a distant country or asking the Congress for billions of dollars in foreign aid. All he has to do is sit at his desk in the Oval Office and sign a bill into law.

The bill is the National Voter Registration Act, commonly called the "motor voter" bill, which would make it much easier for Americans to vote. The bill requires states to allow registration by mail, to enroll voters when they apply for a driver's license and to register voters at other state agencies such as welfare and unemployment offices.

Our political system badly needs this bill. Meeting the leaders of new nations and helping to monitor free elections, I've been fortunate enough to experience firsthand the political changes going on around the world. I cannot help but be struck by a sad contrast.

In Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia and Latin America, people are exercising their democratic freedoms as never before -- fighting dictatorship, founding new political parties or voting in free elections. But in the United States, the headlines are about people feeling alienated from the democratic political process -- Ross Perot riding dissatisfaction with politics to the top of the polls, people losing faith in the ability of the Congress to govern, and voting rates in many presidential primaries falling to an all-time low.

The reasons for this loss of enthusiasm for politics are many and complex, but one simple one has plagued us for years. It is much too hard to register to vote.

President Ford and I were co-chairmen of an extensive analysis before the 1984 national election, in which the major revelation was that an amazingly high percentage of people vote -- once they are registered. When non-voters were asked why they didn't vote in the 1988 presidential race, only 17 percent said they didn't like the candidates or they just didn't care. The most common reason, cited by 37 percent, was that they couldn't vote because they weren't registered.

It's no wonder they weren't. Ours is the only major democracy that requires people to register several weeks before they can vote. And the registration process is a patchwork of rules and regulations, differing widely from state to state, that can baffle even the most well-intentioned citizen. How many Americans know offhand when, where and how they go about registering in their state? This is an especially difficult question for the one-third of the adult population moving every two years.

The statistics on voting reveal the grim effects of our current system. When I ran for president in 1976, 54.4 percent of the voting-age population voted -- a figure that was much too low. Soon after taking office, I submitted legislation that would have permitted voting-day registration in federal elections. But the bill failed. Democratic congressional leaders, concerned that newly registered, unpredictable voters might endanger their sure re-election, killed the bill.

The voting rate has declined steadily since, reaching an all-time low of about 50 percent in the last presidential election. During the 1990 congressional elections, turnout was 36 percent.

The bill headed for President Bush's desk would remove some of the important barriers responsible for this low turnout. It would also enhance the integrity of the registration process by strengthening penalties for registration fraud. Estimates are that 90 percent of the electorate would be registered if the bill becomes law, and at a very modest start-up cost and with long-term cost savings to the states.

Why then is the Bush administration threatening to veto the bill? Unfortunately, they have succumbed to two myths, one spoken, the other only whispered. The spoken myth is that a "motor voter" law would invite voting fraud. Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., has called the fraud claim a "red herring." There is no sign that "motor voter" laws in Oregon and other states have increased fraud.

The whispered but more significant myth is that unregistered voters would vote disproportionately for Democrats. Unfortunately for my party, that would not happen. Surveys consistently find that the political opinions of non-voters are very similar to those of voters. They split pretty evenly between the two parties. Both Republicans and Democrats would benefit from making registration easier, and our democratic system will be the real winner.

President Bush has expressed pride in his administration's support for democracy abroad. By signing the "motor voter" bill, he can help out another troubled democracy, the one right here at home.

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

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