At Large May 2002

The Case for Vote Control

Campaign-finance reform is only a start
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Christopher Buckley and I were having a drink at the Warren Harding Club not long ago, and discussing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. It's wonderful, we agreed, that campaign finance is being reformed. The previous system of raising campaign funds was a shocking disgrace. From 1989 to 2001 Enron contributed almost $6 million to candidates of both parties, and got what for its money? Lawsuits, subpoenas, Justice Department investigations, congressional hearings, and a parade of elected officials besmirching the reputations of Enron executives and vilifying the company name. "I trust," Christopher said, "that the new legislation—whatever it is—will put an end to that sort of thing. But," he continued, "now that we've fixed campaign finance, we need to face up to the other great scandal of the electoral process. It's time this country had decent, effective vote control."

How right Christopher is. Voting has proliferated in the United States, and it has reached a point where there is now almost one vote available per citizen over the age of eighteen. About half of all Americans with a vote have used it in previous elections, often with tragic results. Think of the list of prominent Americans cut down in their prime by the vote: Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole, and (if you're counting the popular vote) George W. Bush. Virtually all America's votes are unregulated. And even in the few jurisdictions where vote control exists, it often goes unenforced. Witness the 1994 election of Congressman Michael Flanagan, a Republican, in Cook County, Illinois.

Of course, no one wants to ban the vote. Voting should remain available for sporting and recreational purposes. But certain types of votes clearly should be curtailed—"assault votes," for example, in which the only purpose of the vote is to harm others. One thinks of the angry, impulsive voters of Youngstown, Ohio, senselessly returning James Traficant to Congress. And although we hear a great deal about campaigns' being too expensive, there is an equal concern that candidates themselves will be cheap and dangerously unreliable. So-called "First-Tuesday-in-November Nothing-Specials" should be banned. As should imports of low-quality candidates from foreign sources. Hillary Clinton in New York State comes to mind. And extra penalties should be meted out for crimes committed with a vote, such as the Volstead Act and the law that makes flush toilets not flush a damn thing.

The League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, leaders of local get-out-the-vote campaigns, and other members of the pro-vote lobby would have us believe that the "right to vote" is somehow a sacred part of the American system. But constitutional scholars—especially after they've been at the Warren Harding Club for a few hours (Freshen that up for you, Judge Bork?)—agree that there is no absolute constitutional right to vote. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments to the Constitution merely state that possession of the vote cannot be denied on the basis of race, sex, failure to pay a poll tax, or having pierced eyebrows, listening to Tori Amos, and wearing pants that expose the midriff down to the knees. Otherwise voting qualifications are left to the states, with a Fourteenth Amendment provision that, to the extent that states limit the vote, congressional representation shall be reduced proportionately. If California had simply restricted its franchise to adults who can go ten minutes without talking about themselves, California would have no congressmen, and the whole gruesome Gary Condit scenario would never have occurred.

In fact, contrary to the supposed constitutional prohibition of vote control, every state in the Union except North Dakota practices voter registration. From there it is a small step to requiring background checks and instituting sensible waiting periods. Imagine how happy the family of Al Gore would be today if Palm Beach County voters had had a chance to pause and reflect and remember who Pat Buchanan is before marking their ballots.

Every vote should carry a serial number, so that responsibility for harmful or careless use of the vote can be traced. Concealed voting should be outlawed. No secure society is possible when we cannot know which of the people we encounter in public places might suddenly vote for H. Ross Perot.

And even toy votes must be kept out of the hands of children. Nothing has been more destructive to the fabric of American life than universal what's-for-dinner suffrage and majority control of the TV remote. No nation can prosper on Lucky Charms alone, or by allowing SpongeBob SquarePants to pre-empt NBA playoffs. Childproof channel-changer locks are an immediate imperative.

Christopher and I hope all of you will join us in this worthy, bipartisan campaign to make Americans safe from voting—especially those Americans who are our inside-the-Beltway political pals, journalistic sources, and fellow members of the Warren Harding Club, all of whom happen to be incumbents.

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