'Motor voter' act off to a sputtery start

May 12, 1994|By Jordan Moss

WHEN President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act, or "motor voter" bill, into law a year ago next week, it was the final achievement of the 1960s voting rights revolution.

Yet today, resistance from individual states is threatening the law's promise of universal enfranchisement.

Blatant obstructions to the ballot box have been outlawed since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed.

"Motor voter" addresses more subtle obstacles, eliminating the maze of regulations that hamper voter registration in almost every state.

With 40 percent of eligible voters unregistered, the change was long overdue.

Properly carried out, the new law will let Americans register to vote when they apply for driver's licenses, welfare or unemployment benefits or use other government services.

But a disturbing pattern of resistance is taking shape around the country.

In drafting state laws to carry out the federal law, which will take effect Jan. 1, legislatures are treating social service agencies differently from motor vehicle bureaus.

Registering will be virtually automatic in motor vehicle offices. Typically, driver's license applications and voter registration will be combined on the same form.

But some states -- for example, Georgia, Massachusetts, Florida and California -- are planning to require that welfare recipients ask to register, then fill out a separate form: a sure-fire deterrent because welfare agencies are notorious for long, complicated applications.

Even worse, many states haven't begun to draft plans for voter registration in welfare offices, a provision that was included specifically to ensure that the bill didn't leave anyone behind.

In major cities such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta, where many poor people don't have driver's licenses, this preference for motor vehicle bureaus will worsen the very inequities that "motor voter" was supposed to eradicate.

Mr. Clinton can rescue the National Voter Registration Act by instructing the secretaries of health and human services and of agriculture, who have jurisdiction over welfare and food stamps, to issue guidelines on voter registration and to provide technical assistance to state agencies.

And the Justice Department should make it known that it will be aggressive in monitoring the law's success.

Voter advocates have been urging the administration to take these steps, but to no avail.

Mr. Clinton, who rightly invokes the bill as one of his important achievements in office, must intervene soon to prevent the perverse possibility that it could mean even greater injustice at the ballot box.

Jordan Moss, a writer, has worked for Human Serve, a national voter registration advocacy group.

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