Federal voting procedures are now being challenged in ways that could undermine the very integrity of the franchise. And there is almost no public discussion of the issue and little effective opposition.

The idea is to increase voter participation by relaxing voter registration procedures and qualification requirements. We are told that low voter turnout is due to “discriminatory” requirements imposed on people who want to vote but can’t deal with the “hardship” of registration. So the effort becomes one of turning nonvoters into voters, which sounds like an unassailable, civic-minded idea. The trouble is that it presents a nefarious potential for influencing electoral outcomes by manipulating the composition of the electorate. The question “Who votes?” becomes crucial. It becomes the political battleground.

Though voting requirements vary in detail from state to state, some basic qualifications have prevailed throughout the country since 1789. Two of these are that voters reside in the jurisdiction in which they vote and that they are United States citizens. These are not specified in the Constitution but are generally accepted assumptions at the core of our idea of democratic government as established by the Founding Fathers.

The residency requirement is under heavy assault, particularly in large cities where community responsibility has eroded and where groups are encouraged to resist authority. Illinois passed a law in December 1992 providing for voter registration of people without a residential address. An executive of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless greeted this development enthusiastically, saying, “The people who are homeless consider it a great victory. It has been an empowering experience for them. It is significant because voting is a way of restoring the citizenship of homeless people.”

Even without legislative sanction, the 1992 election provided an opportunity for getting homeless people, along with other nonvoters, to the polls on an organized basis in various cities across the country. It required no furtive approach. Indeed, it was publicized as a community service program to “get out the vote.” Political activists rounded up homeless people, herded them into buses with the promise of free coffee and doughnuts, and then took them to the polls, offering free advice and assistance in casting the vote. In San Francisco, for example, with the cooperation of voting officials, this innovative plan for group voting went into action in advance of the election. It didn’t happen without substantial organization and expense. It was a practice run for even more ambitious poll-packing in 1994 and 1996.

Most states require advance registration by voters. But these procedures have already been relaxed in several states. Even where they still prevail, local election officials often make their own rules and procedures, exercising a surprising amount of autonomy, especially in larger states.

The political opportunity for changing the composition of the electorate comes to a head in the so-called “Motor Voter” legislation that was passed in Congress in 1992, vetoed by President Bush, and subsequently passed again this year. It provides for automatic voter registration of persons who apply for a driver’s license or renewal, and for registration by mail. It also requires various federal, state, and county agencies to implement programs for mass voter registration; expensive projects imposing heavy costs on states and local governments that already face serious financial difficulty.

Since application for a driver’s license has nothing to do with citizenship, and since welfare applicants include many noncitizens, the citizenship requirement for voting won’t be easy to maintain. Most states require a prospective voter to testify to citizenship, but in actual practice there is no easy way to confirm it. After all, citizenship is virtually irrelevant in everyday life. We are seldom, if ever, asked to prove it. We carry no identification that proves it, and there are no master lists. Election officials, when speaking candidly, will acknowledge that the citizenship of prospective voters cannot realistically be verified.

Fraudulent voting has occurred before in the United States, but only in isolated circumstances and always within the framework of overall public concurrence in traditional assumptions about voter qualification, including residency, citizenship, minimum age, and personal commitment to community well-being and the democratic system. But today we proceed toward social and political tribalism in which the individual’s connection to community or national welfare is tenuous. Our cultural cohesion has disintegrated before our eves and left the integrity of voting weakened and vulnerable.

While we sit and watch, we should demand explanation. If we are to abandon residency and citizenship requirements for voter qualification, we should do it with a clear understanding and knowledge that this is what the country wants. If, on the other hand, these major alterations in the voting process are made without public discussion, then it is a case of massive fraud.

The history of nations, recent as well as past, demonstrates that nationhood collapses when fundamental values cease to breed a sense of national responsibility. When there is no longer a commitment to the state that binds diverse populations together, then the contract between the individual and the state loses its meaning. And when a democracy loses the political means for preserving the integrity of its elections, it loses much of its reason for being.