There are few things as fundamental to representative government as the ability to elect public officials. And there are few things in this country as widely ignored as exercising that right.
Voter turnout is dismal. Not much more than half the voting-age population bothers in presidential elections. Fewer vote in local contests. Are inertia, disdain for politics and obstacles to registration at fault? Probably all three. To remedy at least one, Congress ordered the states to encourage voter registration by offering it at motor vehicle and social services offices, as well as by mail. Forty-five states met the Jan. 1 deadline. Three are defiant.
While the "motor voter" law is no panacea, it opens the bureaucratic door wider for potential voters who need a little extra encouragement. So why should the governors of California, Illinois and Pennsylvania defy a congressional mandate?
State's rights, says Gov. Pete Wilson of California. Nonsense. Elections are as much a federal subject as a state concern, and Congress clearly has the right to make rules and set standards for them. Unfunded mandate, says Governor Wilson. His financially strapped state can't afford $20 million a year to pass out registration forms at its offices. Nonsense. His own secretary of state estimates the cost at perhaps a tenth of that. Maryland officials predicted the new process would cost $630,000 the first year and $350,000 a year after that. The Congressional Budget Office puts the cost nationally at about $25 million a year, a cheap price if it really increases voter turnout.
There is a lot more to increasing voter turnout than motor voter registration, and there is a lot more to the hostility of these governors to the procedure than the arguments they raise publicly. In states where similar programs have been operating for several elections, there has been only marginal increases in voting. The real basis for Republican opposition is the fear that increased registration would benefit Democrats. After the last election, we are not so sure of that.
If the new Republican majority in Congress wants to repeal the motor voter law, it can debate the Democrats on the law's merits. Waving the tattered banner of state's rights won't do.