Who'll pay for 'motor voter'?

February 19, 1993

The House has passed and the Senate is expected to pass the so-called Motor Voter Act. This legislation requires states automatically to register driving license applicants as voters, unless they are ineligible or decline. The bill also requires states to register as voters applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits. Mail-in applications would also be required.

The goal is commendable. The United States ranks 23rd among industrial democracies in voter turnout. Last year, in an election that saw the most voter interest in 24 years, only 55 percent of the voting age population cast ballots.

In that election, first-time voters were overwhelmingly Democratic. This probably explains the partisan division on the motor voter bill. Republicans oppose it and Democrats support it. Both parties expect the new registrants the law would provide will be predominantly Democratic. They are probably right. There are lots more Democrats than Republicans in the lines at the welfare and unemployment offices.

But there is little evidence new registrants brought onto the rolls will in fact vote. Several states have such procedures, and their turnout has not increased as a result. In 1989, the District of Columbia passed a law similar to the one before Congress. Registration went up. But in 1992, turnout in the presidential election in the District was down, in an election in which turnout nationally was 10 percent higher than in 1988.

Republicans don't publicly base their opposition on Democratic gains. They say rather that they fear election fraud ("Zoe Baird's Peruvian chauffeur had a Connecticut driver's license"). And they object to imposing extra cost on the states ("In California alone, over $26 million"). The first is a straw man. States can keep ineligible voters from voting even when registration is universal. But that does cost money, and on the second point, we agree with the Republicans.

This bill is the second considered by the new Congress. It symbolizes what governors have disliked most about the federal government in recent years. It has mandated expenses to the states without providing any funds. (The new Congress' first bill, the family leave bill, mandated expenses to private business without providing them with ways to pay for those.)

The states simply don't have the money. If Congress thinks it can wring the needed funds out of other federal programs, and is willing to do so and subsidize the states to do this job, well and good. But if it isn't, it should put this legislation on the farthest back burner. Ex-Gov. Bill Clinton ought to explain this to congressional leaders.

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