Washington. -- It is already obvious that the 1996 elections will determine how far this nation goes in wiping out the social programs that began during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt -- what Republicans call "the welfare state."
As we lurch into the 21st century, these elections will determine the endurance and sweep of the ideas of men like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or presidential candidates such as Bob Dole of Kansas or Pat Buchanan of nowhere.
That is why the critical question is who will vote, who will go fishing on Election Day, and who will not even register and be eligible to cast ballots that influence the future.
From the founding of this country, those with power and privilege have always tried to limit the number of voters. Some insisted that only the propertied vote. Others said only the literate or "well-educated" deserved the ballot. Still others denied the franchise to all women or to all blacks.
Even with those barriers removed there have been efforts to make it very inconvenient for the less-privileged to even register. That's why in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, which allows people to register to vote through the driver-licensing process, by mail, and at places commonly used, such as welfare offices.
There has been incredible resistance to this law by some states that claim it is a costly "unfunded mandate" that infringes on state's rights. The U.S. Justice Department has just filed suit against Virginia, the sixth state -- after California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina -- to defy it. Federal courts in California, Illinois and Pennsylvania already have held that this Motor Voter law is constitutional.
All the evidence so far indicates that the law works. It is important for Americans to understand why they should be glad it does.
About 70 million of this country's 190 million-plus eligible voters are not registered. While other democratic nations such as Canada, Germany, Sweden and Australia regularly get turnouts of 70 to 90 percent of eligible voters, only about half of eligible voters in the U.S. typically go to the polls in presidential elections and 30 to 40 percent in Congressional elections.
Many reasons are offered for that dismal record, from voter cynicism to difficulty in registering. The U.S. is the only Western democracy in which the burden of registration rests with the voters rather than the government. Registration is the first step toward participation in the democratic process; people who are registered usually vote. According to the Census Bureau, about 85 percent of those registered have voted in past presidential elections.
In the first three months after the Motor Voter law went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year, some 2 million Americans registered, according to a survey conducted for the National Motor Voter Coalition.
"We're experiencing the largest voter registration increase in American history," says Richard Cloward, executive director of Human SERVE, a New York-based voter registration organization. He estimates that up to 20 million more Americans will be registered before the 1996 presidential election.
According to Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, new registrants are likely to be people who have traditionally been left out -- those with lower incomes and disabilities, some minorities, the young, and anyone who has recently moved (about one-third of American adults move every two years).
It's time for balky states to quit whining and get on with voter registration. Funding will not break any state's bank. And whatever the cost, it is a small and reasonable price to pay for what Ms. Cain points out will be a "larger, more diverse electorate -- one that is more reflective of the American people."
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.