Make 'Em Vote!

Congress is trying to come up with measures for determining which immigrants should be citizens. In the bill currently being hashed out in the Senate, we would "rate" immigrants on things like home ownership, savings, and the like. Isn't that nice? We would write off the kitchen help, the maids, the day laborers, and the working poor who can't get in unions -- or worse, we'd push them into the home ownership messes that too many other Americans are now in. Indeed, it takes some nerve to push "home ownership" on future citizens, a month or so after the Supreme Court effectively struck down every existing state law against predatory lending.

And what about a savings account as a measure of good citizenship? It also takes a certain gall to require these new Americans to be like "real" Americans, when real Americans have a negative savings rate. (And it is not clear how would-be citizens are expected to save when the same immigration bill is trying to push the low-income candidates into mortgages that are likely to be usurious.) The United States is so deep in debt it may have to pawn the Statue of Liberty. We want our new citizens to get us out of hock.

But in all these proposed tests of good citizenship, an obvious one is missing -- a requirement that new citizens register to vote. It's especially in the interest of progressives to say: "If you want to be a citizen, persuade us you're going to be a citizen and vote. Don't show us your bank account. Prove to us you're going to read a paper, follow current events, and take up the responsibilities of democratic self-government."

Like many, I used to assume that of course new citizens would vote. I assumed that they still sailed past the Statue of Liberty and wept, and forgot that they now just fly into O'Hare. But if anything, new citizens vote less than we "old" citizens do. The voting rate of new or "naturalized" citizens in the 2000 and 2004 elections was 10 percent lower than that of the native-borns like me. So concludes the Center for Immigration Studies (admittedly, an anti-immigration outfit). A Census report confirmed that, in 2004, 64.5 percent of "native" citizens voted, compared to 53.7 percent of "naturalized" citizins. Here is something to ponder: Unless Congress requires registration, then the more immigrants we let in, the more the voting rate will drop.

Over the years, as a lawyer in Chicago, I have often passed the ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse and seen the new citizens and their families all dressed up for the big event. Once I used to think: "Isn't that heartwarming? Look at all these people from every country on earth." But now of course even in Europe they get new citizens from every country on earth. Nor is democracy such a big deal any more. (That may be why, as fewer new citizens vote, we are losing ours.) At any rate, I no longer choke up when I pass by the ceremonial courtroom and see them all dressed up. Now I think, "Don't let them out 'till they register to vote."

But no one asks them to vote. We just want to see their bank accounts. Go on Google and look at the current "citizenship" test that the Department of Homeland Security is handing out. Here's more or less what we ask: "How many colors are there in the flag?" "Who composed the Star Spangled Banner?" It's a little like a try-out for a quiz show like Jeopardy. At least it has more dignity than in Holland, where they make Muslims watch a film with topless women at local beaches, so they get fair warning before they go Dutch: "This is Holland, get used to it."

Well, this is America, and there is no need to show films of topless beaches, and besides, some of our new citizens have been here "illegally," so they know all about "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy. " We don't even have to quiz them about these things. But why not ask them if they are going to register to vote? Some of my liberal friends are in shock: "You can't require them to vote, can you?" Of course you can. Other countries, like Australia, make voting compulsory for everybody. And we require people to serve on juries, whether they like it or not, and to give their opinion as to whether one of their fellow citizens should be put to death. But this is not even the same requirement. It is a very proper consideration in a highly discretionary act, i.e., whether to let someone be a citizen. Why should we let in people who are not going to vote? (Recall the days of Tammany, when political machine ward-heelers would meet immigrants at the docks and sign people up to vote right there.) I would not even propose to "enforce" the requirement, or to expel new citizens who failed to live up to this promise: Let them live with the dishonor. But at least we should ask them for a commitment.

Indeed, I would agree with those who say, along with John Dewey, that voting is the least important thing a citizen does. I think we should ask each of them how they will carry out their responsibilities as citizens:

Will they read a newspaper, or will they mock the idea of reading newspapers, like our president?

What kind of volunteering, if any, will they do?

Will they promise to vote in every election they can?

Let's suppose that if registered, as a legal condition of citizenship, our twelve million undocumented Americans vote at the same rate as other registered voters. The rate is approximately 87 percent. Let's project the requirement not just onto them but onto other new citizens over the next four years. This one legal condition could increase turnout by five million people, a simple legal change that would equal everything and more done by Move On and the like.

But still my friends object: "You're picking on new citizens and letting the native-borns alone. It's a double standard." Etc. Well, I could say it is properly a double standard, since native-born citizens should have learned in the public schools and in our homes how important it is to vote. Besides, it is a just a fact that immigrants are asking to be citizens and we have to have some measure of deciding who should be a citizen and who should not. Worse, because of our immigration laws up until now, we have ten to twelve million undocumented persons who have learned to live here "outside the law." They in effect have learned to live underground, and while I am in favor of giving them mass amnesty and even making them citizens, we have a certain duty to "re-educate" them to live in the light of day and to take their rightful part in our civic affairs. If we make them citizens without requiring them to register, they will just spread the virus of non-voting. I can understand why they picked up these bad habits, but we have to make them change.

So I could defend a double standard ... but why do so? We should require at every chance we have to make our native-born citizens also give a promise to vote. It's so easy to do! Before kids in public high schools or other high schools get their degrees, they should be required to write an essay that says whether they are going to register to vote, in how many elections they intend to vote, and what else they intend to do to discharge their duties as citizens. If they intend to do nothing, let them tell us. But at least make them say, as a matter of honor, what they are going to do. If they apply for a student loan, ask if they are registered to vote and whether they did in fact vote the last opportunity they had. If they didn't vote, tell them to state on the back of the application why they didn't. The same would be true for a driver's license. Are you registered to vote? Did you vote in the last election?As a lawyer, I believe that even promises not legally enforceable have real impact on behavior.

Sooner or later people would get the point. And here I could start on my favorite subject: bringing back the teaching of civics in the schools. The teacher groups and the No Child Left Behind people and the business groups would be aghast that we would "waste" time teaching civics when we have to skill kids up -- beef up their bank accounts and get them into houses. So I will not take on that issue here. But at least we could require a moment's pause in class occasionally and even try out a new pledge of allegiance, not to replace the old one so much as update it. The new pledge might go as follows:

I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the principle of self-government for which it stands. I promise to take part in the government of my country when I am of age, and I promise to obey the law and keep myself informed about public affairs and to vote and to participate in every election that I can. I know that Americans who came before us gave up their lives so I could vote and be a citizen. I will be a good citizen and use the right to vote that they wanted me to have.

Heck, in the Blue States, they can say it in Spanish; and in the Red States, they can whisper, under their breath: "And so help me God." OK, I know that it could use some re-shaping before a 14-year-old could say it without smirking, but I will leave it to my betters in Washington, D.C., to try their hand. The bottom line is we should at least ask for a promise, from new citizens and the native-born alike. Though the United States may still believe itself a melting pot, it is losing its ability to meld in this one big respect. In a civic sense, there is less melting or melding going on. People show up here already knowing "culturally" how to be Americans, since all over the world, people imitate our style. They get our whole way of life, intravenously, by Ipod. But though they look and talk and act like they're "integrated," it is a kind of faux integration, since more and more they are politically disengaged.

It's not a surprise that we get the kind of immigrants hostile to the duties of citizenship. As we become more of a plutocracy, we now tend to attract either (1.) hedge fund managers, high rollers, the super models, and other type A's who still want to keep their places in Majorca, or (2.) the meek and the humble willing to pick up after them and be their valets. OK, I overstate it. But we get more of the people who intuitively sense that they fit in to our plutocracy. We get more of the predators and more of the prey. Who we don't get in the same special way are those who come here because it is the one, last best place -- the only place back in Lincoln's time -- where they were free to cast a vote. Why should we get those people? People can vote anywhere. In that respect America is no longer unique.

No longer can we take it for granted that new citizens want to vote at all. Let's make them do so. Make them take a pledge, for now, even if non-binding, and see if we can't raise the turnout by a few million. And yes, if it doesn't go up, then make it the law of the land.