Dukakis Fails to Reach Out BY JAMES RIDGEWAY Washington, D. C. WHILE THE DEMOCRATIC party, for the first time in its history, has gone on record in support of universal suffrage, its presidential standard-bearer, Michael Dukakis himself, has steadily opposed efforts to reform the archaic election laws in Massachusetts during his second term as governor. Moreover, after opposing stronger reform measures in the party platform, Dukakis has been running a campaign that has given virtually no serious attention or financial support to voter registration. With less than one month to go before most state voter registration books are closed, only a trickle of funds has gone into registration efforts amidst predictions that the number of voters actually will decline this November from 1984 levels. As it stands, the U.S. has one of the worst voting records of any industrial democracy. “Dukakis doesn’t like [voter registration],” Francis Fox Piven, a leading proponent of registration reform, said. “But he’s not the first one. The Democratic leadership doesn’t want to do voter registration. Mondale turned down a proposal by his field director that said the only way we can win this fight is to register five to seven million new voters. Mondale just turned his back on it. They just don’t want to register new voters.” Unlike many states, Massachusetts does not permit either registration by mail or same-day registration. There is no statewide canvass and employees of state agencies are barred from registering voters. Like the Deep South in the days before the Civil Rights movement, Massachusetts adheres to a restrictive procedure under which effective control of the registration rolls is in the hands of local officials. Since 1984, activists have pressed the Dukakis administration in Massachusetts to pursue a series of reforms including a proposal for an executive order that would establish registration services with welfare, motor vehicle, and other state agencies. While the governor himself cannot deputize state employees to register voters, reformers hoped he would agree to call together local Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway’s work is a regular feature of the Observer. Research assistance for this article by Karla Delgado and Fabrice Rousselot. mayors, who do have the authority, and strongly encourage them to have their registrars deputize state workers. At the same time, the reformers asked Dukakis to support pending legislation that would have established a system for agency registration and would have directed census takers to register voters. Why not make it easier to vote? Of these reforms the most promising in registering large numbers of voters is the so-called agency-based registration, adopted by 16 states including New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Connecticut. Under the agency-based models, thousands of citizens who do business with state agencies are asked as a matter of course whether they want to register to vote. The procedure is virtually automatic. Dukakis has opposed requests for an executive order, an act “so ceremonial as to be meaningless,” an aide explained last week. And while he has provided pro forma endorsement for certain reform efforts, including a failed effort to allow registration by mail, he is personally opposed to agencybased registration on grounds it gives registration a partisan cast and might be coercive. As an aide explained it last week, Dukakis is worried that, say, a Hispanic family with little knowledge of English, applying for welfare, might feel pressured into voting, perhaps even thinking they should vote Democratic. To a lesser extent, he is worried that deputizing state Officials might change job descriptions and wage scales in existing contracts with public service unions. “It’s just asking a question,” Piven said last week in exasperation. “Do you want to register to vote? Being on a list of registered voters doesn’t mean you have to vote. Dukakis misconstructs the character of public employees. They are not working for some kind of political machine. Most of them are bored by their work.” Public service unions in Massachusetts and nationwide support agency-based registration, as do such organizations as the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Secretaries of State, and the National Conference of Black Mayors. Last June, the Democratic National Committee sent out a voter registration reform handbook, along with a memo from DNC chairman Paul Kirk, urging support for agency-based programs. The DNC also sent a memo to state party chairs asking them to urge their governors and mayors to issue executive orders in support of agency-based registration. Still Dukakis wouldn’t budge. In an attempt to change the governor’s mind during the primary season, Mike Frazier, an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, accompanied reform lobbyists from Human SERVE to a meeting with the governor’s staff. They got nowhere. John Businger, who represents Dukakis’s home district, Brookline, in the Massachusetts legislature and serves as the chairman of a joint legislative committee on election laws, is a leading proponent of reform. According to Businger, Massachusetts is “not a great model for democracy” when it comes to voter registration procedures. “Home rule,” he insisted, not the governor, was the problem. “Mike’s a progressive Democrat,” he declared loyally. “The legislature’s the problem.” But Robin Leeds, a lobbyist for Human SERVE who worked on the staff of Businger’s committee, said Dukakis has never fought for reform when it gets down to the “nittygritty.” Even though formally supportive in certain instances, she said, “it hasn’t been on his list of legislative priorities.” But she added that Dukakis is by no means alone. Boston’s mayor Ray Flynn also has dragged his feet on voter registration reforms. Time is running out for voter registration reformers, who had hoped to transform Massachusetts from the industrial state with the worst election laws into a model one as an added boost for the Dukakis campaign. Registration books close on October 10. While negotiations between the Dukakis administration and reformers continue, their outcome is at best uncertain. At the Atlanta convention in July the party endorsed a clear call for reform: “We believe that this country’s democratic processes must be revitalized: by securing universal, same-day, and mail-in voter 4 OCTOBER 14, 1988
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