Detouring the Motor-Voter Law: Fear of Franchise

Article excerpt

In August, California Governor Pete Wilson announced he would defy the federal government and refuse to implement the National Voter Registration Act--the socalled motor-voter law. And in September he vetoed a bill, passed by the state legislature, that would have set up a computerized system to carry out the federal law. But Wilson's explanation--that states should not have to pay for mandates issued from Washington--is a political smokescreen. So is his claim that the new law will increase voter fraud, encouraging ineligible people (including undocumented immigrants) to vote.

The immediate goal of Wilson's demagogy was to inflame fiscal and anti-immigrant fears to help his re-election bid against State Treasurer Kathleen Brown. But looking beyond November, the Governor and his fellow Republicans fear that the new law will increase registration primarily among groups who tend to vote for Democrats. Wilson's decision could have a significant impact on California and even national politics--including the 1996 presidential contest, in which the state will play a crucial role--and on Wilson's own rumored hopes of a place on the G.O.P. ticket.

Signed by President Clinton in May 1993, the new law requires all states to streamline their voter registration procedures. It compels states to allow voters to register when they apply for or renew their driver's licenses at state Departments of Motor Vehicles, or D.M.V.s; to enlist voters at social service, military recruitment and other public agencies; and to permit voters to register by mail. It also orders states to implement these provisions by January 1.

Several states already use their motor vehicle agencies to register voters; most others are moving quickly to implement the law. New York State's implementation legislation, enacted in August with Governor Mario Cuomo's strong support, is considered a model for other states, according to Human SERVE, a key voting-rights group. Only eleven states have failed to comply so far with the implementation process. And only in California and Michigan have the governors (both Republicans) used the "unfunded federal mandate" excuse to defy the law.

Wilson's estimate that it will cost California $35.8 million to implement motor-voter is wildly inflated. John Mott Smith, chief of the California Secretary of State's Election Division and the official in charge of overseeing the details of putting the law into effect, says that it will cost no more than $5 million.

Hunger for votes--not money--is the real reason for Wilson's civil disobedience. In the midst of a tight re-election campaign, challenging Washington to pay for voter registration and saving taxpayers money in this fiscally strapped state makes him look tough.

Wilson's claim that the new law will promote election "fraud" is also hokum. In fact, experience in other states, as well as common sense, suggests that the motor-voter approach reduces fraud. The D.M.V. and social welfare agencies have a much higher standard in screening applicants than the current system of registering voters at sidewalk tables and City Halls. Raising the specter of illegal aliens flooding the polls is just the latest example of Wilson's ongoing immigrant-bashing.

Wilson knows that the G.O.P. must win California, which has one-tenth of the nation's Electoral College votes, if the party is to recapture the White House in 1996. According to the Field Institute, 65 percent of California's 19 million eligible voters are registered to vote. By contrast, about 90 percent of eligible voters have driver's licenses or D.M.V. photo identification cards. Thus, the motor-voter law could increase voter registration to at least 90 percent--adding almost 5 million new registrants. Additional citizens would be registered at social welfare and unemployment offices, disability agencies, libraries, schools and other organizations.

The United States has the lowest voter turnout of any Western democratic nation. …