The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 3, 2012

Jim Scofield | Rigid, unfair registration rules keep voters at home

Jim Scofield

— Elections and voting, if fairly conducted, can be the people’s check on government and power. Historically and currently, though, there have been problems. True, the limited franchise that we started with at our revolution has been gradually made more inclusive.

Today, however, some Republican-controlled state legislatures, including our own, are moving to cut back this historical liberalization of voting rights. Even more threatening, money, always an undemocratic, despotic force, is increasing its influence over elections.

Only white males could vote at our inception, and not all of them until about the 1830s, when property and taxpayer qualifications were removed.

The 14th and 15th amendments, following the Civil War, seemed to give the vote to the newly freed male slaves.

But, especially in the post-reconstruction south, the vote was taken away from African-Americans violently and brutally, until the successful civil rights struggles of the 1960s won back the vote.

Similarly, Suffragettes had to be arrested and often tortured in jail before most women got the vote in 1920.

Many other schemes – poll taxes, literacy tests and unfair registration practices – were used to deny the vote to wide selections of citizens. Rigid, unfair registration rules kept me from voting in two presidential elections.

But until recently the movement has been to widen the electorate (including 18 year olds). However, Republican legislatures, on vague, dubious claims of voter fraud, have passed laws to limit these liberalized practices. They have cut back extended vote times and mail ballot options, and limited and stiffened registration opportunities, especially by requiring picture IDs, a practice that will hurt the elderly, the poor and students, groups who lean toward the Democrats.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, if you don’t possess a proper photo ID, you better locate your Social Security card (what’d I ever do with that?) and an official birth certificate in order to apply for a free, acceptable ID. Easy process, huh?

Also, even if your congenial precinct workers have recognized you for years, they must demand to see your photo ID.

Remember, Republicans oppose regulation.

Voting turnouts in the U.S. are poor, 30 to 40 percent in off-year congressional elections and 50 to 60 percent in presidential ones. Our registration rate of only 68 percent is embarrassing; Canada, our neighbor, registers 93 percent.

We should be easing requirements. Same-day registration (no need for any registration in Canada) or automatic registration through various public agency records, especially public assistance.

Florida has made registration drives almost criminal, causing the League of Women Voters to halt its campaigns.

Many states won’t allow former prisoners to vote and only two allow those in prison, although they all count these disallowed persons in order to enlarge state representation. Voting should be an important citizenship experience for all.

Given our poor voter turnouts, either election days should be public holidays, or weekends, or extended periods.

The other failure of American elections is that candidates need big money, which they can get only from the rich, tilting us further toward oligarchy. It’s a system of unadmitted and unofficial bribery. It’s no wonder that lawmakers have drastically reduced tax rates for the rich and corporations in the past 50 years. More and more, large contributors control both parties’ candidates.

And their interests dominate no matter where public opinion is.

Most people we know may give about $100 maximum to a candidate. Rich individuals, however, can give $2,500 to each candidate per election (including primaries). They can give much more to the national party, and to the local party committees. Corporations can’t give directly, but they typically have their executives volunteer the maximums, bundling them together. Not what you and your neighbors might do, huh?

Pennsylvania allows unlimited contributions by individuals and political action committees.

So-called 501(c) committees can use large sums for advertisements supporting

or attacking a candidate as long as they are not part of a candidate’s campaign. And now, thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts advertising for or against a candidate as long as they maintain that they are independent of any campaign.

Some states and municipalities have “clean elections” laws. In Maine, candidates who can collect a set number of small contributions qualify for public funding if they forego private contributions.

The presidential campaign law allows this too, but no candidate currently accepts it for fear of being outspent by a competitor. Another proposed reform would require television, the real big expense in politicking, to give free time to candidates. As it is, networks and stations are making boodles from campaign ads.

To paraphrase, we have the best system money can buy.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.

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