Steven L. Klein, director of the Americans for Democratic Action affiliate in Illinois, believes that universal voting registration will mean the enfranchisement of "every tombstone, firehouse and lamppost in the city of Chicago."
Attorney general Griffin B. Bell considers the proposal "the logical next step in the historic trend toward greater democracy in America."
And conservative theoretician Kevin Phillips thinks that registration may cause increased voter turnout that will wipe out anticipated Republican gains in 1978 and "could threaten GOP survival."
In the context of these conflicting political claims, a congressional debate is about to begin on President Carter's proposal to allow registration at the polling place on the same day as an election.
Testifying before the House Administration Committee on the first day of hearings on universal voting registration, Bell depicted it as the last act in a drama of universal suffrage which began with the 15th Amendment and extended through women's suffrage, the Voting Rights Act, the 18-year-old vote and the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act of 1975.
But there are students of the issue, including some who support highly liberalized registration laws, who have concluded that universal voting registration will take away from election sanctity than it will bestow in terms of a broadened franchise.
In fraud-conscious chicago the opposition spans the ideological and political spectrum. It is no surprise that Harold Tyrell, chairman of the Cook County Republican Committee, says of the plan that "since it's a license to steal, you ought to charge a fee." But universal registration is condemned in Chicago also by the nonpartisan Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts), which says it would reduce anti-fraud efforts and by the regular Democratic organization, which may fear that it would lose its tight machine control of the city.
On the Democratic National Committee the proposal has been questioned by James M. Wall, editor of the Christian Century and a resident of the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. Wall, too, is worried about fraud. He also regards universal registration as "a flippant approach to a very important problem" because it will encourage "impulse voting" among citizens who vote only because other people are doing it.
As the congressional hearings began, there seemed to be widespread agreement only on a few points:
There have been no documented cases of willful vote fraud in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the only states that have same-day registration at the polling place. Nor has there been experience of frand in Maine, which permits voeters to register at one place on election day and vote at another, or in North Dakota, which has no registration but requires proof of residence to vote. In Oregon, where the systems is similar to Maine's, three cases have been referred for prosecution, all involving a single act of double voting.
Despite the absence of known fraud, there have been many instances of error, sloppiness and confusion. According to a compilation of Minneapolis City Clerk Lyall A. Schwarzkopf, there were 4,415 multiple errors made on the registration cards of the 12,400 election day registrants who voted in the 1974 general election in Minneapolis. In Mankato, Minn., in 1976, three university students vouched for the authenticity of 472 election day registrants, later admitting they did not know many of them. And in Wisconsin some election officials believe that the long lines caused by a flood of election day registrants in 1976 discouraged some people from voting.
The great hope of proponents of universal voting registration is that it will reverse the 20-year trend of declining voter turnout. But this isn't clear either. Only 2 per cent of nonvoters in a Census Bureau study of voter participation in the 1976 election cited registration barriers as a reason for not voting.
Many of the attempts to make it easier to register and to vote have been fought vigorously by the GOP. The latest example was the successful fight led in the House last year by Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) against postcard registration. Now, Frenzel and House Minority leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) have dropped their opposition to universal registration and instead are trying to amend the Carter Administration bill to improve safeguards against fraud.
Kevin Phillips, in a view shared by a number of conservatives, thinks that universal registration should be opposed as vigorously as the postcard bill was last year.
Phillips estimates that Carter would have won nine state, including California and Illinois, carried by Ford in 1976 if universal registration had been in effect.
The legislation proposed by Carter would not require same-day registration in state and local elections, and could bot constitutionally, but is contains powerful financial incentives to encourage it. Every state that adopted same-day registration for its own elections would receive a 20-cent per voter bonus. Because of the difficulties of conducting elections with two ballots, election authorities believe there is likely to be a trend to either adopting the federal laws or holding state and local elections on a separate day.
It is the local elections, say vote fraud experts, where the greatest protential for abuses exist.
"I don't think there's that much vote fraud in presidential voting," says Thomas F. Roeser, chairman of the anti-vote fraud project Project LEAP, in Chicago."What the machine cares about is alderman, state representative, Cook County attorney."
In its present form the universal voting registration bill is certain to face amendments from both Democratic and Republican members. Frenzel said last week that he will propose amendments to require a uniform identification system at the polls and to limit the number of people that another person can vouch for as being legal residents.
Democratics are likely to concentrate on amendments to see that the legislation actually accomplishes its purpose. Rep. John Burton (D-Calif.) responded to Bell's testimony by indicating he wanted the bill strengthened to guarantee that the money given the states actually is used for employing more registrars. Otherwise, said Burton, the result would be long lines that would discourage potential voters.
As Committee Chairman Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), a supporter of the measure, summarized it after Bell's opening testimony last Wednesday: "There are going to be a lot of amendments."