Initiatives aimed at registering poor Americans to vote is un-American, or at least that is the conjecture Matthew Vadum made early last month in a controversial article published by American Thinker. Vadum, the author of Subversion, Inc. and Senior Editor for the non-profit watchdog group Capital Research Center, argues that leftist groups are trying to use the poor as a “battering ram” to advance redistributionist policies. The poor masses, Vadum suggests, are the tools with which Obama and like-minded organizations plan to drag America further from small government ideals. Vadum essentially asserts that voter registration is infringing on his American Dream.
The progressive radio host Thom Hartmann went toe-to-toe with Vadum shortly after the article was released. On the Thom Hartmann Program Vadum defended the views he put forward in the article arguing that, given the chance, welfare recipients would vote for their own interests. Hartmann, expressing concern for the one in seven Americans below the poverty line, argued that everyone, not just the poor, votes for their own interests. Vadum had no substantive response to Hartmann’s prodding.
Although some may cast Vadum off as a loose cannon speaking from the fringe of American politics, the issue of registering voters has been a hot-button topic in the last few months. In mid-September, New York Senator Charles Schumer wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for more strict enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Sections 5 and 7 of the NVRA, commonly known as the Motor Voter Laws, require states to make voter registration available to citizens when renewing or applying for a driver’s license and at all offices that provide public assistance. In his letter Senator Schumer points out that voting rights agencies have brought suit against Ohio and New Mexico for non-enforcement of the NVRA.
In an article for American Thinker, John H. Watson (I’m no detective, but I have a sneaking suspicion this is a pseudonym) argues that the NVRA allows for more voter fraud because of easy access to registration without proof of citizenship. So the analysis then becomes one of costs and benefits. Do we make registration more accessible and run the risk of higher incidences of voter fraud? It seems that the benefits outweigh the costs. Senator Schumer states in his letter that before enforcement of Motor Voter Laws, Ohio’s DMV only processed 24,000 voter registrations a year. In the year following the lawsuit 121,000 voter registration forms were processed. While after a crackdown on voter fraud in 2007, the Justice Department came up with only 86 charges of voter fraud.
Are advocates like Vadum and Watson really arguing that voter fraud is the issue? It seems more likely that Vadum and Watson just think they know what’s best for America; after all, they registered to vote without the help of Motor Voter Laws or voter advocacy groups. In his article, Vadum asserts that the poor are “particularly open to demagoguery and bribery”. Vadum suggest that the poor are more likely to vote for their own interests than their more level-headed rich counterparts. Research, including James Foster’s study through the University of California, suggests that most people, rich and poor, vote out of perceived altruism. In short, voters enter the voting box because they think they are voting for what is best for most people. A person under the poverty line may very well want to expand social programs, and Mr. Vadum may want to shrink the same initiatives all for the same reason: each thinks he earnestly know what’s best for the rest of the country.
The person who knows who’s right may have the answers to all life’s questions, but for now a simpler problem is in front of us: the poor have been, for a wide variety of reasons, underrepresented in American voting throughout history. Voting statistics from 2008 showed a direct correlation between wealth and voting practices. Statistics showed that 51.9 % of people making under $20,000 voted compared to 91.8 % of people making over $100,000. Suggesting, as Vadum does, that helping anyone to exercise their right to vote is un-American seems, well, un-American. To Vadum’s credit he doesn’t come right out and say the poor shouldn’t vote, but instead suggests that we should lock the doors, turn out the lights, cross our fingers, and hope that the poor don’t find their way into the party we call the democratic process.
Patrick Genova is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.