In the aftermath of the presidential election, a well-worn tradition is being revived - only some Americans are trying to give it a new twist.
The tradition is to bemoan the low turnout among registered voters, then forget about it for another four years.This time, however, some experts are doing more than just complain. They're trying to get more Americans to the polls in the future by making it easier to register to vote. Unfortunately, the proposed reform is a case of good intentions being no substitute for good judgment.
Certainly there's ample reason for being dissatisfied with Americans' performance last Tuesday. With votes being cast by only 49 percent of those eligible, citizens stayed away from the polls in record numbers - breaking a 40-year mark for low turnout and continuing the decline in voter participation that has plagued U.S. presidential elections since 1960.
That performance makes it hard for the U.S. to hold its head up among western democracies, where as much as 80 percent of the electorate turns out in national elections.
Keep in mind, however, that the differences between American political parties and presidential candidates are much more narrow than the ideological chasms that gape across Europe. Some political parties in Europe are openly committed to all-out socialism, and in some cases even the communists are strong enough to command cabinet seats. As long as they face the prospect of lurching back and forth between parties with radically different policies, European voters are going to have much more to lose on election day. Consequently, they have much stronger incentives to vote than Americans do.
Keep in mind, too, that the U.S. used to impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and lengthy residency requirements as conditions for registering to vote. Though those burdensome restrictions were lifted long ago, voter participation has still declined.
That situation makes it hard to look on continued elimination of registration restrictions as the cure for voter apathy. Indeed, there are limits to how much more registration requirements can be relaxed without increasing the risk of fraud at the polls.
The U.S. could consider following the example of some other countries where official canvassers are sent from door to door registering voters. But if the U.S. starts registering voters who won't stir outside their own homes to qualify, how informed and conscientious are they likely to be on election day?
The point is that there are no easy answers to voter apathy. By all means, let's make sure that registration is not needlessly cumbersome. But even after that is done, the U.S. still needs to keep looking for ways to get out the vote.