WASHINGTON. — Washington -- In 1963 President Kennedy appointed a commission to suggest reforms to increase voter turnout. Seventeen of its 18 recommendations to make voting easier were fully or partially adopted. Since then, turnout has declined steadily.
Now, in another exercise in missing the point, reformers are trying to pass S. 250, the ''motor voter'' bill to require states to ease, still further, voter registration.
States would be required to register to vote anyone applying for or renewing a driver's license. Or to mail registration forms requiring neither notarization nor other formal witness.
Or to have registration available at all offices that provide public assistance, unemployment compensation or related services, and state-funded programs to the disabled, and to designate some other registration agencies, which may include libraries, schools, fishing, hunting and marriage license bureaus, revenue offices and some private sector locations.
Most states are currently running deficits and raising taxes. Another unfunded mandate from Washington will require still more cuts in education, health and other programs.
In 27 states it is possible to choose to register through drivers license offices. In seven of the 10 states that have made that possible since 1972, voter turnout has declined. What has increased is voter fraud.
In 1960, about 64 percent of those eligible to vote did so. In 1988, only 50.2 percent voted. So almost as many eligible voters stayed home as voted for George Bush. In 1990, just 33 percent voted in House elections.
However, the decline in voting has coincided with reduced impediments to voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements.
Voting has declined as the electorate has become more educated and affluent, as government has become more expensive and bossy, and as politics has become more television-centered and delivered to the living rooms of even the most passive people. But what exactly is the ''problem''? The infrequent act of voting is less significant as a sign of a person's civic virtue than is constant thoughtfulness about civic life.
Turnout is highest among the attentive. And if mild registration burdens are sufficient to defeat a person's inclination to vote, those burdens probably are filtering out the unmotivated, who are apt to be the uninformed.
Before hectoring people to vote, remember: When voting is increased by nagging everyone about their ''duty'' to vote, more turnout will probably mean a worse electorate. To be blunt, smaller usually means smarter.
One reason for low turnouts in presidential elections is the electoral vote system and the custom of winner-take-all allocation of states' electoral votes. In most presidential elections, the outcome in most states is known by election eve. Therefore, many voters lack a motive powerful enough to propel them through November weather to a polling place. Voting can be cathartic, even when the election's outcome is clear, but is not cathartic for everyone.
Furthermore, low turnouts often are signs of social health. Low political energy can be a consequence of consensus about basics. When society is not riven by deep fissures about fundamental questions, non-voting may be passive consent, reflecting contentment.
Many potential voters abstain because electoral outcomes do not determine the shape of their lives. Which is the way it should be: In a good society, politics is peripheral to happiness.
You want high turnouts? Try 86.2, 83.5 and 88.8 percent. Those were the rates in three elections in Germany, 1932-33, when elections were literally matters of life and death. Today happy, well-governed Switzerland has turnouts lower than America's.
If reformers really believe voting is a duty, they should have the courage of that conviction: Let them try to legislate penalties for not voting, as in Australia and Belgium. Or they could try noncoercive ways of energizing voters. The Democratic Party could try nominating presidential candidates who do not drive so many Democratic voters to apathy. Both parties could argue about serious ideas.
Finally, reform-minded legislators could make more elections interesting by enacting limits on the number of terms legislators, congressional and state, can serve.
Compulsory rotation of offices would generate a steady supply of open legislative seats and would radically reduce the suffocation of competition by incumbents' advantages.
Alas, this obvious inducement to voter participation will not come soon. Sponsors of S. 250 are hot to reinvigorate democracy, but not that hot.
4*George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.