An unexpectedly tough battle is looming over a plan that would allow adults to register to vote while renewing their driver’s licenses.
The Voter Registration Act, or so-called “motor voter” legislation, started as a bipartisan effort. But the Democrat-Republican coalition threatens to unravel over GOP fears of costs, possible voter fraud and the potential of the plan to recruit an electorate that would vote Democratic.
The act’s backers herald the legislation as an expedient way to boost voter participation by registering 80% to 90% of the nation’s eligible voters. The bill includes guidelines for mail-in registration, which is already in practice in 26 states, California among them.
The legislation, which would go into effect after the 1992 elections, comes before the House today with the backing of both the Democratic chairman of the Rules Committee’s elections subcommittee, Rep. Al Swift of Washington, and its presiding Republican, Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield.
However, many Republicans, including House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), have already delayed voting on the measure and plan to present alternative legislation.
Although details are not yet clear, the Republican alternative will likely attempt to address the concerns outlined last week in an eight-point White House memo that called for slapping a spate of amendments onto the bill, among them:
--To allow states to ignore the bill’s guidelines if Congress does not appropriate “full” funding. As written, the bill would provide $50 million to support states’ record-keeping, printing and redesign of forms. That is more than double the cost of the “motor voter” program as estimated by the General Accounting Office. However, some Republicans contend that their states would need to install prohibitively expensive computer networks.
--"To prevent the buildup of deadwood” on voter rolls. Congress is split on how best to ensure that the list of voters is accurate and up-to-date. Some favor purging voters when they file change-of-address forms with the Postal Service. Other Republicans want stricter measures, including the right to purge registered voters if they do not vote.
Congressional aides in both parties diagnose the real source of Republican opposition as their private fear that the “motor voter” plan would mobilize a previously untapped body of Americans--women, minorities and the poor--who tend to vote Democratic.
Thomas, the bill’s Republican sponsor, calls such fears “mythical.” He, like House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), says the plan would bring more Republicans than Democrats into the fold by tapping middle-class young adults.
“The bill has the opportunity for creating an advantage for Republicans,” Thomas said. He cited a New York Times survey that indicated that if every eligible voter cast a ballot in 1988, President Bush would have beaten Democratic rival Michael S. Dukakis by an even larger margin. “A larger turnout is a resource for Republicans, not Democrats. This runs so counter to traditional thinking, but the world has changed,” Thomas said.
The League of Women Voters, a major advocate of the “motor voter” plan, points out that many of the states with the highest traditional turnout also have the easiest registration process. North Dakota, which does not require any registration, enjoyed the highest turnout in the 1988 election--73.2% of its eligible voters.
“Voters say the main reason they didn’t vote (in 1988) is because they weren’t registered--and then they can list 49 reasons why they didn’t register,” said Beverly McFarland, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters.
“In many states, you have to go down (to the registration site) during business hours, in person. A single mother with kids might not be able to make that trip. Or a person really busy at work just keeps putting it off. Either way, registration represents a barrier,” she said.
The national average for voting activity in 1988 was 57.4% of eligible voters, according to a Census Bureau survey. Of the four states that already offered “motor voter"-style registration in 1988, three enjoyed better-than-average turnout. But the fourth state, Nevada, was dead last in the nation, with a 46.9% voter turnout.
Iowa, Louisiana and the District of Columbia approved versions of “motor voter” registration last year, and several other states are considering adopting easier registration guidelines, according to the League of Women Voters.
In California, only 51.7% of the eligible voters cast a ballot in 1988, 45th in the nation, even though the state offers registration by mail and widespread voter-registration areas.