When I first began participating in politics, you had to go to the polls – twice – in order to vote. We did not have permanent registration until the mid-'50s, and you had to register to vote every year. Voters had to go to their polling place on one of four days in early October to register and then return to vote on Election Day. And voter participation was considerably higher than it is today.
As political operatives, we had to get people to the polls twice (actually, voluntary participation was so high that there was little effort required!). Can you imagine what turnout would be today if people had to go their polling place twice to voter?
When you registered to vote for the first time, you had to present a high school diploma or citizenship naturalization papers, or pass a literacy test. Registering to vote for the first time was a real rite of passage. I can remember very proudly taking the bus down to the Board of Elections on State Street with my high school diploma shortly after I turned 21 (yes, 21) and registering to vote. I was a full grown citizen!
I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of Italian immigrants, and it was really impressive to see the glow on their faces when they came into the voting booth clutching their naturalization certificate and then registering to vote.
It may be coincidental, but as we have made voting participation easier, voter participation has fallen. The pride in being a full citizen and voting is gone. When the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, it was going to result in a big increase in the number of voters. In actuality, the group of people with the lowest voter participation is that between 18 and 25. No flood of new voters ever occurred.
As for people being too busy today to vote, I would say that we all manage to find time for the things we really care about. If a person can find the time to buy a Mega-bucks ticket, they can find the time to vote – if they care.
Don't misinterpret me. There are changes that should be made. I believe that Election Day should be moved to Sunday as in most of Europe or even spread over two days – Saturday and Sunday. Primary day voting hours should be the same all over the state. We should have one primary for both federal and state offices. We should have early voting as in most states.
I am less enthusiastic about allowing same-day registration. While there is virtually no voting fraud today (I could tell you great stories of fraud from 60 years ago!), I can anticipate that same-day registration could result in fraud, since there would be no public review of the voter rolls until after the voting was completed.
One "reform" that I am vehemently opposed to is the so called "open primary" system. My opposition is two-fold:
- My Democratic Party belongs to me and my fellow enrolled Democrats. If you want to vote in our primaries and have a voice in selecting our candidates, all you have to do is become a member of our party. If you have never expressed any alignment or interest in our party, why should you be allowed to participate in the selection of our candidates? If you feel left out because you can't vote in the primary of the predominant local party (Democrat in the city, Republican in most of the towns), all you have to do is enroll in that party.
- There is a history of "open primaries" being a vehicle for political dirty tricks. For many years, California had an "open primary" system and Republicans openly organized their voters to vote in the Democratic primaries and to vote for the worst candidate. As a result, the Democratic party would end up with unelectable candidates who would regularly lose elections. This kind of chicanery would be easy to do, especially in local primaries where turnout is very low.
Paul Haney served on the Rochester City Council for 12 years and on the Monroe County Legislature for 10 years. He was director of finance for Monroe County for nearly 4 years.