Head to Head: Should Californians be allowed to register and vote on election day?

Published: Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 17A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 17, 2012 - 2:26 pm

THE ISSUE: California residents seeking to vote must register 15 days before election day. In states with the highest voter turnout, however, potential voters may register and vote on election day, with face-to-face scrutiny of photo ID, documentation of current address, signing of an affadavit and heavy penalties for voter fraud.

Should Californians be allowed to register and vote on election day?

Pia Lopez: Yes

I lived in Minnesota for 15 years, a state that consistently tops voter turnout. That distinction is no accident. In the 1970s, Minnesota and Wisconsin adopted one-step voting, where voters can register and vote at their polling place on election day.

These high-turnout states recognize that registration should not close just as issues and candidates gel in the last days before an election.

They also want young people to get the civic habit of voting at a key point when they move away from their parents' home.

In Minnesota, for example, colleges provide campus housing lists to election officials; students show a college photo ID to register and vote on election day. Students living off-campus show a passport or driver's license to prove identity and utility bills to prove current address – or have a registered voter vouch for them (as I did for some students living in the small town of St. Joseph). This ensures students are not disenfranchised in communities where they live for four years.

Same-day registration also avoids the administrative hassle of provisional ballots for people who have recently moved and are updating information, which Wisconsin's elections director says "alone makes same-day registration worthwhile."

Vote fraud, such as double voting, is a nonissue. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie notes that election day registration is "much more secure because you have the person right in front of you – not a postcard in the mail."

Election day registrants sign an oath, face-to-face with an election official, that they are U.S. citizens, have lived in the state at least 20 days and are at least 18 years old. Giving false information is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Surely this is better than having paid canvassers filling out cards (often erroneously) in front of California's grocery stores!

Voting in the United States has evolved from arbitrary restrictions limiting the vote to white, propertied males. Former slaves, women and 18- to 21-year-olds have won the right to vote.

In California, voters tend to be older and more affluent than the voting-age population – and voter turnout has steadily declined. Last Tuesday's primary may have set a record low.

It doesn't have to be that way. A spring 2011 report co-authored by Michael Alvarez of the California Institute of Technology estimates that if California adopted election day registration, voter turnout would increase by 9 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds and by 7.3 percent among those who have recently moved.

A decade ago California voters rejected same-day voting. It is time to revisit the issue. In a representative democracy, elections should reflect the broadest possible electorate.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

Ben Boychuk: No

Age and race may be arbitrary restrictions on our beloved franchise, but same-day registration and other turnout-boosting schemes are mere conveniences – and an open invitation to mischief and fraud.

Yes, I know: Voter fraud is notoriously difficult to prove. So difficult, in fact, Democrats tend to dismiss the idea as a myth. Yet somehow the "myth" keeps manifesting as reality.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray's deputy chief of staff resigned last year after a community gadfly uncovered that she voted in D.C. illegally, even though she lived in Maryland. In Mississippi, a member of the Tunica County NAACP's executive committee was sent to jail for five years for fraudulently casting 10 absentee ballots. In Minnesota, 26 felons since 2008 have been convicted of voting illegally.

Now comes the objection: How are any of those crimes related to same-day registration?

Answer: They aren't – at least not directly. But if it's so easy to game the system with absentee ballots and flimsy "trust-me-I'm-eligible" promises, you don't have to be a Chicago alderman to see how easy it would be to exploit same-day registration rules with little risk of being caught.

Here's one way: Under Minnesota's same-day registration law, a person lacking proper ID may cast a ballot if a registered voter in the same precinct signs an oath affirming she personally knows you and up to 14 of your similarly situated friends. What could go wrong?

When Mark Ritchie says election day registration is safe because "you have the person right in front of you," he sounds like George W. Bush recalling how he got to know Vladimir Putin by looking into the man's eyes and getting "a sense of his soul."

In elections, as in U.S.-Russian relations, maybe the better advice is to "trust but verify."

The only way same-day registration makes sense is if it were paired with a robust voter ID law. You need valid identification to cash a check, buy a beer and apparently even to attend the Democratic National Convention. But asking a voter to prove he is who he claims to be is anathema to liberal turnout fetishists.

Personally, I find little comfort in the idea of thousands of low-information voters appearing at polling places on election day, registering on the spot and voting for the candidates they've doubtless been instructed to select beforehand.

I don't know why that vision sets liberals' hearts aflutter. If you care about the vote's rectitude, the prospect should cause anxious palpitations.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)

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