Motor-voter registration upheld by high court California's challenge is first of several to reach Supreme Court

January 23, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Kerry A. White contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The national "motor voter" law -- a sweeping election-law change that in one year has added some 10 million voters to the rolls -- withstood its first constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court yesterday.

Under the law, states must allow people to register to vote when they apply for driver's licenses. State welfare offices, and other agencies that distribute benefits, also must offer the option of registering to vote.

The court turned aside, without comment, an effort by Gov. Pete Wilson of California and members of Congress from that state to scuttle the National Voter Registration Act -- a measure that deeply divided Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

A national survey through September indicated that 8 million new voters had signed up using the easier procedures required by Congress. Yesterday, the League of Women Voters said the new voter total has risen to 10 million and is likely to rise further.

In Maryland, the state elections administrator, Gene M. Raynor, said that about 59,000 new voters in the state have been registered as a result of the new federal law.

"Now, registration is much easier," Mr. Raynor said. "We've had the biggest increase in registration since 1972, when 18-year-olds first got the vote."

Republicans in Congress resisted the new law, arguing that it was a ploy to increase Democratic registration by attracting voters traditionally allied with the Democrats.

States' rights advocates also opposed it, noting that voter registration has long been a matter for states to handle.

It is unknown how many of the new voters across the nation are Democrats, Republicans or independents, although there are indications that Republicans and independents have outpaced Democrats in taking advantage of the new law in most states.

In Maryland, Mr. Raynor said the new law has led to a slight increase in the pace of Republicans and independents signing up.

Although seven states have challenged the law's constitutionality, every federal court that has heard those complaints has upheld the measure.

The court was in session only briefly yesterday, and had recessed hours before about 60,000 anti-abortion marchers arrived to protest on the 23rd anniversary of the court ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Before recessing, the justices turned down an appeal by the state of Pennsylvania, which sought to restore a state law that required poor pregnant women to report sexual assaults before they could qualify under Medicaid for a free abortion after a rape.

That provision was struck down by a federal appeals court last summer. The court also nullified another section of the state law, requiring women who seek a Medicaid-financed abortion to end a life-threatening pregnancy to secure approval from a second doctor.

The justices simply refused to hear the case -- the third time in six weeks that the court has rejected states' attempts to avoiding paying for abortions under Medicaid.

The court also chose yesterday to bypass another issue -- the power of state courts or juries to assess damages against Christian Science parents or Christian Science practitioners for the death of a patient who has been denied traditional medical treatment. Christian Science believes that prayer and faith are the best healers.

Minnesota state courts had upheld a $1.5 million verdict against a mother, stepfather and two Christian Science practitioners for their roles in the death of an 11-year-old boy who died of diabetes after receiving spiritual treatment but no conventional medical care.

In their appeal, the parents and the practitioners argued that the ruling interfered with their freedom to practice their faith.

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