WASHINGTON — Washington.--In my southern home town, when I had just turned 21, it took both know-how and nerve to register to vote. Where and when to sign up was closely held information in a courthouse dominated by the Neanderthal political machine of Harry Byrd the Elder.
The registrar's precise schedule is lost to me, but his office was open approximately every other Tuesday from 1 to 2 p.m. It was on one of the upper floors of the courthouse. To get to it you had to pass by dozens of policemen and clerks, an intimidating obstacle course to those who had never set foot there before.
To vote in a given election, a citizen had to be registered months in advance, usually before anybody outside the machine knew who would be running. And of course there was a poll tax, of $1.50 a year, which is not much now but was more to tobacco factory and cotton mill workers making 40 cents an hour.
The system was intended to keep those workers, and other riffraff not approved by the machine, from voting. And it worked: In a typical Democratic primary, which was then tantamount to election, the turnout was 10 to 15 percent of the voting age population.
After the past generation's wave of legislation and court decisions, the worst of that anti-democratic bigotry is no longer seen in America. But traces of it remain, even on the national level. That is one reason why even in 1991, only 63 percent of eligible U.S. citizens are registered to vote.
Other countries where democracy is newer cherish the vote more seriously; their turnout far exceeds the voting total in our presidential elections, which barely reaches the 50 percent mark. There are many reasons for this disgraceful record, including voter apathy. But most politicians agree that if registration were easier, more Americans would vote.
They disagree, however, on whether that would be a good thing. There actually is a sizable minority of congressmen who find fault with boosting registration indiscriminately. Most of them are Republicans.
In a dozen states, voters are registered automatically when they renew their drivers' licenses. If this happened nationwide, about 50 million people would be added to voter rolls. Ninety-one percent of the voting-age population holds either drivers' licenses or state identification cards.
The House approved a "motor-voter" bill by a better than 2-to-1 margin last year, but President Bush opposed it, and it was killed by a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Mr. Bush's ostensible objection was that setting up the machinery would cost too much.
Now another "motor-voter" proposal is before Congress, and preliminary debate sounds much the way it did in 1990. Money is indeed a problem, since computers could cost a state $70 million and operation could cost $25 million a year, and last year's bill authorized only $50 million in federal funds for the whole nation.
But down deep, congressional objections are based not on finance but on principle. The same politicians oppose this system as opposed the idea of postcard registration, also blocked in Congress. With good reason, conservatives fear that automatically registering drivers would add mostly poor, uneducated citizens, likely to vote Democratic. Thus they don't want to make registration easy.
If Mr. Bush continues his opposition, a two-thirds margin in both houses will be needed to moot his veto threat. Last year, sponsors fell short of the necessary 60 percent needed to cut off the Senate filibuster. There has been no sign that he has changed his mind.
The simplest, most effective methods of boosting the voter rolls in the world's oldest democracy are ruled out because those in power are afraid of too much democracy. The fear is not as blatant as it was in Selma, Alabama, in the Sixties or in southside Virginia before the civil rights revolution started. But anybody who was there in those days will recognize this year's opposition for what it is.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.