Smoke screen

March 06, 1995|By Tom Teepen

THE NEW Republicans like to rail against the supposed elitism of the Democratic Party and rhapsodize over a Republican "opportunity society" that would empower even the least of its citizens.

This is an astonishing conversion to egalitarianism.

Until recently, the GOP was the party of trickle-down economics and trickle-up rectitude, with the rich validated by their wealth and the poor redeemable only through exemplary lives, so perhaps it is not surprising that the new posture is as yet incompletely mastered.

Thus we find the barkers for opportunity also humping to repeal recent legislation that is making voting far easier for millions of potential electors, many of whom had not heretofore found their way into the political process.

The so-called Motor Voter Act, which requires the states to offer voting registration by mail and on-the-spot registration at social-service and driver's license offices, went into effect Jan. 1.

The early results are impressive. Florida, for instance, added about 3,000 new voters a day in the first three weeks; Georgia about 1,500 daily.

Congress adopted the system after experience in several states had shown that making registration more accessible increased election turnouts without creating fraud.

Republicans now complain that this is another of those unfunded mandates, modishly accounted an offense against good government because they make the states spend money on national interests.

That's a smoke screen. The real GOP worry is that more of the newly enfranchised will vote Democratic than Republican.

And indeed they probably will, though not as one-sidedly as feared in our gated neighborhoods where sleep is haunted by nightmares of the French revolution.

Public-assistance sign-ups will tilt Democratic, but the drivers' license clientele is more Republican-like and the law will speed the enrollment of that archetypal Republican voter, the suburban move-in.

The recent congressional races showed that propertied white guys -- to whom the Constitution at first restricted the vote -- can still swing an election if they want to, despite the later democratic giddiness that let black folks, women, youths and ne'er-do-wells into the game.

Motor Voter is unlikely to balk such outcomes, though it might, for a while, make Republicans work a tad harder for them.

And what is wrong with that? The political system is supposed to work hard to suit the interests of the broadest possible electorate. That's the point of our system.

Previous widenings of the franchise have enlivened and refreshed our democracy, not degraded it, the perpetual fret of the better classes.

Let's see, now. So far this year, the newly anti-elitist GOP has rejected legislation that would have limited the influence of lobbyists, booed proposals for a modest increase in the laggard minimum wage and undertaken to shrink a broadening electorate.

The learning curve for this egalitarian stuff is proving to be stiff climb.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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