Not To Be Trusted With Knives

{October 8, 2008}   Why Do Americans Have to Register To Vote Over a Month Ahead of their Election?

I saw it mentioned on Evany’s blog that voters in Missouri have to register to vote by today, Oct 8, in order to vote in the November US presidential election.  I also noticed this in the celebrities-telling-people-to-vote video posted on Rebecca’s blog – if you don’t register to vote in the US presidential election by whatever deadline your state sets, which may, as in the case of Missouri, be over a month in advance of the election, then you lose your right to vote.  What is up with that?  Here in Canada I can walk up to the poll on election day with my ID and proof of my address and register right on the spot.  I’ve done it many times.  It’s that simple!  Doesn’t it seem problematic to take away people’s right to vote because they didn’t register over a month before the election?  Is there some rationale for this that I’m missing?


somoscangrejos says:

Probably because of voter fraud. I see that in Canada you need and ID to vote, many parts of America don’t require an ID.

Beth says:

You don’t need ID to vote? Why not just make everyone bring their ID and skip the whole registering a month in advance? How does registering prevent fraud?

Kalev says:

Beth, Beth, Beth… ascribing common sense to American electoral policies is like… ascribing common sense to their current President?

Demonweed says:

Running a fair election is easy in principle but tricky in practice. Many are the tales of voter fraud in this nation. Some of them may be true. Each state has the authority to determine its own election procedures (in fact, for some of the earliest U.S. Presidential elections, Electoral College delegates were simply selected outright by the Governor of that state.) So there are fifty different bodies of law to shape this process.

Though fraud is the superficial rationale for restrictive procedures, ultimately the debate boils down to demographics. Conservatives raise barriers because poverty, advanced age, physical impairment, et al. tend to amplify the impact of burdensome procedures. Liberals ease access for precisely the same reason. Like many of our perennial political struggles, our politics produce results echoing that of other civilized democracies one or two generations in the past.

Stacia says:

It does have to do with fraud. And I kept my Wisconsin ID for almost 2 years after moving to Virginia, so using an ID doesn’t always work either. I’ve never voted anywhere that didn’t require an ID (and a voter registration card, except WI, where you can register and vote the same day). I’m going to vote early (since the baby is due 4 days after the election) this year, probably next week!

Beth says:

@Demonweed – Why does each *state* have authority over the procedures for a *federal* election? Shouldn’t the feds run the fed election?

Also, so what do they do during the registration process that prevents voter fraud? As Stacia points out, one can keep their ID from one state after they move (I know people who do that here when moving from one province to another – plus, we vote by riding so even if I move within the same city I would need to change where I vote) – so how do you prove during the registration process that you are eligible to vote? And why can’t you do whatever that is on the day of the election?

Again, am I trying to, ask Kalev says, “ascrib[e] common sense to American electoral policies”?

Demonweed says:

One thing to keep in mind is that democracy in the U.S. came about incredibly fast, less like the English parliamentary system’s evolution and more like the violent birth of the First Republic in France. However, France has experienced many subsequent upheavals, whereas are original union held together through its greatest internal conflicts. Between normal levels of patriotism and our jingoistic misperception of having invented ideas like voting and trial by jury, our Constitution is venerated to the point where further Amendments are unlikely and an outright overhaul is all but unthinkable.

Had we a 21st century Constitutional convention, I suspect there would be an overhaul that lets the President be determined by overall popular vote and introduces clarity to a number of murky and/or controversial passages. Collectively, our conservative bent raises overwhelming opposition to the thought of such an upheaval (even if it is clear the Founding Fathers expected less unthinking rigidity and more adaptive flexibility from heirs to their legacy.) It make no sense that our most vocal religious zealots are also our most vocal proponents of inhumane cutthroat capitalism, but if one accepts the nonsensical nature of our resident troglodytes, the rest of our political realities integrate into a sensible perspective.

So it all boils down to veneration for the achievements from which the nation was born. As far as fraud goes, by having formal lists of registered voters, it is possible for officials and concerned parties to investigate possibilities like the use of dead people’s identities to cast extra votes or the creation of fake identities for the same purpose.

Because of solid precedents establishing the importance of procedural fairness (within the limitations imposed by the Constitution and its Electoral College,) I believe all states do have a provisional voting procedure. If a voter turns up at the polls and is barred from casting a normal vote, it should still be possible to offer identification, complete a written ballot, then use that record if election officials or relevant judges should rule that the original exclusion of that voter was illegal.

While very little of the U.S. Constitution was an invention unrelated to previous civic achievements, implementing the whole package all at once in the late 18th century was groundbreaking. The compromise that enticed less populous colonies to join the union now serves as an unfortunate quirk that amplifies the political influence of voters inhabiting low population states. So, to sum things up, there is some sense in why our nation was established with an Electoral College and states’ authority to determine how delegates to the College are selected. However, it is only blind stupid love of tradition that prevents reformers from getting an Amendment or a Constitutional Convention together to modernize the process.

Oh, and that said, there is a movement afloat to see many states act together to change their laws so that the Electoral College delegates are a function of the nationwide popular vote rather than a statewide popular vote. If this movement were successful, a bloc of states controlling the critical 270 Electors could remain true to the Constitution and yet create a situation where the popular vote total is the decisive factor. That too is unlikely, but perhaps more likely than getting a relevant Constitutional change down here.

Kalev says:

I’ll not sound as eloquent as Demonweed but basically I have no problem with the US Electoral College. I understand what it was meant to do and I’ve gotten way beyond the notion that simple popular vote is always a good thing (which is why I support the move to BC-STV that the BC Liberals will never let happen despite them having set up a second referendum). What kills me about the US is how they think they’re a country and yet there’s this completely ridiculous notion at the core of their government of “states’ rights,” the stupidity and ludicrousness of which, as here in terms of voter eligibility and registration, is expressed over and over again throughout their society. I mean, the notion that a “nation” would have 51 different sets of criminal law is just mind-bogglingly insane. The notion that one would have to get gay marriage passed 51 times and not just once is likewise crazy, although granted there was a bit of that happening in Canada at the time. But not even close to the same extent and we went and dealt with it in a timely manner.

Obviously there has to be some accounting for regional variation within nations, but the US is the prime example of that taken to ridiculous extremes. That’s why whenever someone in Canada (mainly regressive conservatives [and Conservatives*, unsurprisingly]) starts talking about “provincial rights” I want to scream and claw their eyes out, because if there’s anything Canada does better than the US, it’s national consistency, which is actually quite ironic if you think about our countries’ respective reputations and penchant for patriotic vitriol.

Raul says:

@ Beth – Federalism is different in each country, and Canada’s system (fully federalized, where Provinces have to establish intergovernmental accords with the Federal government, and where they actually may have more influence over certain portions of the policy process) is very different to that of the US (hence states have a little bit of power over certain functions, and a lot over others).

I don’t think I explained myself very clearly but Demonweed and Kalev did. Blame it on my being overdosed on NeoCitran.


Demonweed says:

I suppose part of what makes U.S. federalism such a sensitive issue is that we did endure one of the bloodiest civil wars in world history. At its heart was a conflict between an increasingly strong federal government and an increasingly barbaric plantation subculture. Brother against brother, wholesale urban destruction, victory by attrition . . . that war had it all. Generations later, the echo remains a national sore spot.

With insult upon injury, modern politicians often use federalism as an excuse for inaction. Our earliest federal drug prohibitions were a profound betrayal of states’ rights. Yet even in such dire circumstances as hurricane Katrina, public officials have been known to use “we did not want to impose federal authority on a state” in a lame effort to justify indefensible conduct.

Anyway, my own blog has always had a fairly political bent. After some shaky efforts to get back into the habit, I believe I turned out an entirely readable, perhaps even slightly insightful, piece this morning. Since some Canadians visible here seem to have a personal interest in politics, and both our nations face imminent elections, I thought it was worth plugging my minor achievement wherever interested folks might be found.

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