Rob Natelson: Protect Democracy: End Election Day Registration

Carting uninformed, transient voters to the polls to vote for the political boss-man is a time-dishonored practice of demagogues everywhere. It has no place in Montana.

House Bill 30, currently pending in the Montana legislature, would curb this abuse by ending the practice of voting-day registration. It would require voters to register at least four days before the election instead.

In my view (and this is not necessarily the view of MPI, which does not promote particular legislation), the bill does not go far enough, but it is a good start.

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 maximim to 30 days. That hardly seems enough time to become educated on local issues. And we certainly don’t need more “low information” voters.

I lived in Missoula for 24 years, a town that hosts many people who are really transients—that is, their true homes are elsewhere. I don’t just mean students, but people who come to Missoula just to hang out for a while. Unfortunately, transients are are encouraged to vote in Missoula. Again and again, I watched as they made decisions for our city that we 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 advantage of Election Day registration to herd into the Missoula County 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.

Adopting a 30-day requirement would only begin to solve the problem. But at least it would begin to do so.

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