As a professional scribbler, one of my end-of-year chores includes assembling a list of overused words and phrases — you know, those seductive or misleading utterances that cause paroxysms of eye-rolling in those of us peck at the keyboard.
Several years ago, that list included the word “disenfranchised.” Now after reading about a recent proposal from Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to enact legislation and amend the state constitution to facilitate “ballot access,” I’m tempted to add disenfranchised to my list for a second time.
“There has been a comprehensive and coordinated assault on the right to vote,” thundered Bilal Sekou, the chairman of Common Cause in Connecticut, during a Capitol press conference with Merrill last week.
Both Sekou and Merrill were responding to recent initiatives in 14 states that require a photo ID to be shown before voting or that make it more difficult to obtain absentee ballots.
Among Merrill’s proposals, which have the full backing of Gov. Malloy, are election-day registration and access to absentee ballots with fewer restrictions. The latter would actually require a constitutional amendment — an enormous amount of work for an already busy legislature grappling with a continuing budget crisis and an educational reform effort that could take up most of the coming legislative session.
“We must, of course, preserve the integrity and security of our elections, but never at the expense of disenfranchising a voter,” Merrill said.
There’s that word again. Dictionary.com defines “disenfranchise” primarily as “to deprive a person of the right to vote or other rights of citizenship.” Secondary and tertiary definitions also contain the word “deprive.”
Now, I understand that there have been efforts in other states to impose restrictions on voter registration drives or to intimidate voters away from the polls. Those actions are clearly wrong and it looks like Merrill’s proposal would address them. But do we have any evidence that voters in Connecticut are being routinely “deprived” of the right to a ballot because of current state election laws?
Does requiring unregistered voters to register no later than seven days before an election “deprive” anyone of the right to vote? Currently, the use of absentee ballots is constitutionally limited to those will be out of town, have an illness or physical disability or have religious objections to voting on the actual day of the election. Do those restrictions “deprive” anyone of the ability to cast a ballot? As an example of the need for a constitutional amendment, Merrill cited voters who found themselves displaced and unable to return to their hometowns for the Nov. 8 municipal elections as a result of last year’s freak late-October snowstorm — a once in a lifetime experience.
Predictably, the impetus behind the proposed changes in the law is low rates of registration (only one in three eligible voters is registered) and what Merrill called “anemic” voter turnout. In last year’s municipal elections, for example, only 30% of eligible voters cast ballots and, in the 2010 state elections that featured a hotly contested governor’s race, 57% bothered to vote.
Would registering hundreds of thousands of additional state residents increase turnout? You’d have to ask yourself whether any adult disengaged enough to remain off the voting rolls would, by the simple act of registration, feel compelled to actually show up at the polling place on the correct day or request and fill out an absentee ballot in advance of the election.
As my distinguished colleague Ray Hackett of the Norwich Bulletin observed last week in a column directed at Merrill, “You see, voter registration isn’t the problem; getting the 2 million who are already registered to participate is.”
Call me a voice in the wilderness, but I’m not one of those observers who thinks increasing voter participation is, by its very definition, a welcome step. It seems that all too often, arguments over increasing voter participation fall along party lines: While few of them will admit it, Democrats think the masses of the unregistered and unmotivated, if prodded to register and vote, would naturally gravitate toward the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Republicans tend to agree, which is precisely why they are often skeptical of such efforts.
As an unaffiliated voter, I carry no brief for either party. But I do think voting should involve some effort and motivation. If you’re currently disinclined to show up at your town hall on election day or request an absentee ballot ahead of time, are you in a position to make an informed choice of candidates? Why do you think school budget referendums in May have such low turnout? Because only the handful of people who paid attention to fiscal matters are motivated enough to make an appearance.
I would submit to Merrill that the real problem is civic disengagement. Most people are either too lazy or too cynical to pay attention. Only about half of Americans can name the vice president of the United States, while 37% know who their governor is. Fewer still can name their congressman or U.S. senator. Asked to name their state representative, only about 20% can muster the wherewithal. Oh, but 93% can identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And we want these people to vote? No thanks. Let them stay at home and watch Jersey Shore.