Universal Voting an Idea Worth Debating

By Daily Editorials

June 16, 2015 5 min read

Universal voter registration is one of those ideas that makes some sense if you set aside politics and think about what voting means to both our country as a whole and each citizen as an individual.

It hasn't happened, of course, because of politics. But it's an idea worthy of debate.

Sadly, the kind of debate it is receiving revolves around political ideology and not the merits of the idea.

One reason it's politically charged at the moment is because earlier this month Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a speech supporting the idea.

In the speech, Clinton called for federal legislation that would automatically register citizens to vote at age 18 and mandate 20 days of early voting in all states. The first mistake we see here is tying two controversial ideas into one issue: the mandate on early voting does not find the same favor here as the idea of being automatically registered to vote at age 18.

Clinton also assailed Republicans, including several running for president, for "systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting." With that kind of rhetoric Clinton achieved what it probably was she was after in the first place: a media fight with Republicans rather than a healthy debate.

So it was no surprise that is exactly what she got.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Clinton wanted the changes to "commit greater acts of voter fraud," while Ohio Gov. John Kasich accused her of "demagoguery" and "dividing Americans." When it comes to matching rhetoric with rhetoric, don't get between Christie and Clinton.

Clinton is clearly raising the issue with an eye on her election prospects in key battleground states, but so are the Republicans attacking her.

Republican officials, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, have led the charge to limit early voting, conduct questionable purges of voter registration rolls and make it harder for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.

It was a welcome change when Scott last month signed a bill into law that will allow Floridians to register to vote online. And we question the need to extend early voting more than it already is — and certainly if it comes in the form of a mandate. If one can't get to the polls over a seven-day period, you have to wonder how interested they really are in the process.

But given differences in digital access between communities, online voter registration is an imperfect method to provide access to the ballot box. Universal registration would be an even better way to ensure the accuracy and integrity of voter rolls.

Republicans such as Christie throw around accusations of fraud when election reforms are proposed, but those claims simply haven't held water. There have been just 31 credible allegations of voter fraud in the entire country since 2000, according to an August 2014 analysis in the Washington Post by a Loyola University Law School professor.

About 71 percent of eligible adults are registered to vote nationwide, the Post reported. A much lower percentage actually shows up to vote, as we've seen in Bay County.

Universal registration wouldn't solve that problem, but would remove one more barrier keeping people from the polls.

Voting should be a default right, not something citizens have to jump through hoops to exercise. Clinton may be an imperfect messenger to promote universal registration, but that shouldn't detract from the value of the idea.

Looked at this way, voting is a right we have as Americans unless we commit a crime or other offense that causes that right to be stripped. Reaching the age of 18, in the past, was linked to two major achievements: the right to vote and the right legally buy a beer.

While the drinking age has changed to 21, the two are often linked together and even used in the argument that the drinking age should be lowered back to 18: "If you're old enough to vote and fight for your country, you should be allowed to buy a beer" is a statement we've all heard.

Yet when you turn 21, you don't have to register to be eligible to buy a beer, you have to provide a state issued ID proving who you are and that you're old enough to drink.

Why would it be a stretch to apply the same to the right to vote? When you turn 18, you can automatically be registered and if you choose to go to the polls at the last minute, you will be served.

It's worth a discussion free of rhetoric.

REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD

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