Carting uninformed, transient voters to the polls to vote for the political boss-man is a time-dishonored practice of demagogues everywhere. It has been proposed for Colorado, but it has no place here.
Some historical perspective: America has a long tradition of democratic governance. By the time our American Constitution was adopted, nearly all states had broadened their electorates greatly from colonial days. Property requirements were loosened. Several states allowed women to vote (formally in New Jersey, informally elsewhere). Free African-Americans cast ballots in at least five states.
This was all to the good. But the Founders also understood that democracy is not the same as ochlocracy (mob rule). They understood that, for democratic governance to work, the electorate must (1) be reasonably well informed, and (2) stand to lose personally as well as gain from the choices they make. One of the Founders’ solutions—an imperfect one, to be sure—was to retain some modest property requirements. Several states also provided exemptions for people meeting other qualifications, such as gainful employment.
Note that the Founders did not consider suffrage a “right” in the sense that, say, freedom of speech or self-defense was a right.They classified it as a “privilege”—that is, a grant from society, although a very, very important one.
One result of the difference was that while any law-abiding citizen could exercise a right, getting a chance to vote was something to be earned.
I wouldn’t want to go back to property requirements for general elections. But it does seem like a pretty minimal “qualification” to ask someone to pay enough attention to be able to register a few weeks before a pending election. In my view, it would be fair to require voters to register for a general election by Labor Day, when the formal general election campaign traditionally begins. However, the Supreme Court has effectively limited the maximum to 30 days. That hardly seems enough time to become educated on local issues. And we certainly do not need more “low information” voters.
I lived in Missoula, Montana for 24 years, a college town that hosts many people (and I don’t just mean students) who are essentially transients whose true homes are elsewhere, but who come to Missoula to hang out for a while. Local political activists encourage them to vote there. Again and again, I watched as they made decisions for the city that long-term residents would have to live with, and pay for, decades after the transients were long gone. In 2008, I watched as one of the national campaigns took advance of election-day registration to herd into the local courthouse people so incompetent they couldn’t get it together enough to fill out a simple form without it being stuffed in their hands on Election Day.
This is not good government. And it is heartbreakingly unfair—especially to the retirees and others on fixed incomes who have to pay, year after year, for mistakes made by voters who have long left for greener pastures.
Election Day registration is a move in the wrong direction at a time when we should be re-instilling the Founders’ view of voting as a privilege and obligation tied to responsible, knowledgeable citizenship.
Latest posts by Rob Natelson (see all)
- New Article: The President is not Violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause - March 7, 2018
- A New Look at the Founders Through the Postal Clause - February 25, 2017
- Chief Justice John Marshall: Not the Big Government Guy You Might Think - February 24, 2015