No matter how exciting the presidential election may get by next November, don't expect impressive numbers of Americans to go to the polls.
Though there's no excuse for voter apathy, it remains a fact of political life in the U.S. Since hitting a contemporary peak of nearly 63 precent in 1960, voter turnout has slipped to only 37 precent of eligible voters in 1986. That gives America just about the worst record of voter participation among the world's industrialized democracies.What can be done about it? Sen. Alan Cranston of California thinks he has the answer national standards for voter registration in federal elections. But it's the wrong answer.
A bill introduced by Cranston would require, among other things, that all states let voters register by mail or on election day. Currently, three states have election day registration and 25 permit registration by mail.
The trouble is that the more registration standards are relaxed, the greater becomes the risk of election fraud. Likewise, the more the federal government imposes nation-wide standards, the more it infringes on states' rights.
But the biggest problem with the Cranston bill is that it doesn't go to the heart of voter apathy. Voters don't stay away from the polls just because it isn't always easy to register. Rather, various studies trace such apathy to a variety of other factors, including disillusionment with the competence and integrity of government officials and disenchantment with the quality of candidates seeking public office.
No wonder that easier registration isn't expected to boost turnout by more than six-million voters, a small fraction of the roughly 80-million non-voters.
The message should be unmistakably clear: What the nation needs for a better turnout at the polls is not streamlined election laws or even a greater sense of responsibility on the part of the electorate, though that might help. Rather, what's needed are more attractive candidates. It's a message that needs to be conveyed not just to Congress but to the headquarters of all the political parties.