How to boost civic in­ter­est

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Conor Frieder­s­dorf Conor Frieder­s­dorf is a staff writer at the At­lantic and found­ing editor of the Best of Jour­nal­ism online news­let­ter.

Why force cit­i­zens to register in or­der to vote? Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla raised that ques­tion this year when he pro­posed a law that would au­to­mat­i­cally register ev­ery el­i­gi­ble voter with a driver’s li­cense. “One of the big­gest bar­ri­ers to citizen par­tic­i­pa­tion is the voter reg­is­tra­tion process,” he said. “A new, en­hanced Cal­i­for­nia mo­tor-voter law would strengthen our democ­racy.”

Many Democrats in Sacra­mento — and be­yond — agree.

Ore­gon’s gover­nor re­cently signed an au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion bill.

And this month, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton called for au­to­matic, uni­ver­sal voter reg­is­tra­tion as well as a 20-day early vot­ing win­dow. She also ac­cused her Repub­li­can ri­vals of “a sweep­ing ef­fort to disem­power and dis­en­fran­chise peo­ple of color, poor peo­ple and young peo­ple from one end of our coun­try to the other.”

It is gen­er­ally thought that au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion would ben­e­fit Democrats and hurt Repub­li­cans. So it’s safe to as­sume that politi­cians on both sides of the aisle are bi­ased by that knowl­edge.

Still, it’s pos­si­ble to set par­ti­san con­sid­er­a­tions aside and have an apo­lit­i­cal, sub­stan­tive de­bate on the is­sue.

Con­ser­va­tive pun­dit Dan Foster fa­vors al­low­ing ex-con­victs to vote, even though do­ing so would harm the prospects of Repub­li­cans. But while he fa­vors a nearuni­ver­sal fran­chise, he is wary of mak­ing voter par­tic­i­pa­tion eas­ier than it al­ready is.

“The need to register to vote is just about the most mod­est re­stric­tion on bal­lot ac­cess I can think of,” he wrote re­cently, “which is why it works so well as a demo­cratic fil­ter: It im­proves demo­cratic hy­giene be­cause the peo­ple who can’t be both­ered to register (as op­posed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, ex­cept in un­usual cases, civic id­iots. If you want an idea of what po­lit­i­cal dis­course looks like when you so dra­mat­i­cally lower the bur­den of par­tic­i­pa­tion that civic id­iots elect to join the fray, I give you the In­ter­net.”

Pro­gres­sive jour­nal­ist Jamelle Bouie agrees that democ­racy re­quires in­formed cit­i­zens and that in­creas­ing the pool might make the av­er­age voter less in­formed, at least in the short term. But he has ar­gued that “like any task, you get bet­ter at vot­ing the more of­ten you do it. Rel­a­tively un­in­formed vot­ers in one elec­tion might be­come highly in­formed vot­ers a few cy­cles later.”

Although I see no de­fin­i­tive way to re­solve their dis­agree­ment, I find my­self fa­vor­ing uni­ver­sal voter reg­is­tra­tion.

That is partly be­cause I don’t think that fill­ing out gov­ern­ment pa­per­work is a re­li­able proxy for who is an in­formed voter and who is a civic idiot. Nor do I ex­pect that civic id­iots will start turn­ing out in large num­bers on elec­tion day. The sort of per­son who’s too ap­a­thetic to register is prob­a­bly also too ap­a­thetic to cast a bal­lot.

And let’s not pre­tend that a civic idiot on one sub­ject is nec­es­sar­ily a civic idiot on another.

A citizen might not register to vote be­cause she knows she’s un­fa­mil­iar with na­tional or state pol­i­tics writ large. Yet that same per­son might have strong opin­ions and ex­per­tise on the sort of is­sue that ends up on a bal­lot mea­sure. If she didn’t file her pa­per­work in time for the ref­er­en­dum, that would amount to a civic loss — es­pe­cially in a place such as Cal­i­for­nia, which has an el­e­ment of di­rect democ­racy built into its po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Mostly, how­ever, I fa­vor au­to­matic reg­is­tra­tion be­cause mod­ern po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in­creas­ingly tar­get only those who are al­ready on the voter rolls.

In a by­gone era, po­lit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion was largely ad­dressed to gen­eral au­di­ences. An­ti­war can­di­dates or small-gov­ern­ment can­di­dates tried to spread their ideas as widely as pos­si­ble, us­ing TV and ra­dio ads and scat­tered public ap­pear­ances. And some of the peo­ple who en­coun­tered these ideas would be spurred to civic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

To­day, can­di­dates and ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions are get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter at di­rect­ing their mes­sages ex­clu­sively at regis- tered vot­ers. For ex­am­ple, Face­book’s advertising guide­lines for po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives men­tion reg­is­tered vot­ers as one of the de­mo­graph­ics that can be tar­geted with third-party data.

Over time, this could cre­ate a civic di­vide un­like any in our history. Lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion would per­pet­u­ate it­self.

Take a per­son who doesn’t register at age 18, when most peo­ple ex­hibit low lev­els of civic in­ter­est.

In the old days, he would have ex­pe­ri­enced sub­se­quent cam­paigns much like his peers who reg­is­tered at the first op­por­tu­nity; over time, he would have come across a great deal of — pos­si­bly en­gag­ing — po­lit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion and com­men­tary.

These days, those who register to vote at the first op­por­tu­nity and those who do not are likely to find a much higher de­gree of vari­ance in their ex­po­sure to cam­paign is­sues.

At the lo­cal, state and fed­eral lev­els, reg­is­tered vot­ers will be awash in highly tar­geted pitches and get-out-the-vote ef­forts, while those who don’t register will be al­most to­tally ig­nored.

Doesn’t that iso­la­tion from the demo­cratic process risk cre­at­ing civic id­iocy over time? I think so. And that risk out­weighs the ben­e­fits of con­serv­ing need­less reg­is­tra­tion pa­per­work.

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