The House cleared the way Wednesday for final passage of a controversial bill that would make voter registration accessible to millions of Americans who do not now vote.
Voting along party lines, the House passed the final version of the “motor-voter” bill, 259 to 164, and sent it to the Senate, where a Republican filibuster last March forced Democrats to strip the legislation of a provision requiring states to offer voter registration at welfare and unemployment offices.
With a slight modification to win the support of a key Republican senator, that provision was reinstated in a House-Senate conference.
Republicans still opposed to the bill said they may try to stall it again when it comes before the Senate next week. But the compromise struck by the conferees appears to guarantee that the Democrats will pick up just enough Republican support to thwart a second filibuster.
The bill--dubbed motor voter because of a provision that would allow drivers to register to vote at motor vehicle offices when they renew their licenses--seeks to enfranchise millions of Americans who do not vote. It would do so by requiring states to offer registration by mail and at welfare agencies, disability benefit offices, motor vehicle bureaus and military recruiting stations.
“This is the most important voter registration legislation in the last half-century,” Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said. “Now all citizens, rich and poor, black, white and brown will have a far greater ability to register to vote.”
Senate Republicans had objected to having welfare and unemployment offices on the list, arguing that their inclusion is a partisan maneuver to select places where voter registration is likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic.
Under the compromise reached by conferees, the public assistance agencies were restored after language was added to ensure that no welfare recipients would feel coerced into registering.
The language, which requires welfare officials to assure recipients that their benefits would not be affected by their refusal to register, was adopted at the insistence of Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), whose support was viewed as the key to thwarting a second Republican filibuster.
In the March debate, the Democrats were never able to get more than 59 votes--one short of the 60 needed--to end the Senate filibuster. Durenberger’s defection, along with the possibility that a few more moderate Republicans may follow suit, leaves the bill’s sponsors confident of final passage next week.
In the House debate, Republicans also objected that the bill would put an undue financial burden on the states, which will be required to bear all the costs of the new provisions--an estimated $100 million to $200 million over five years.
But supporters countered that the cost is a small price to pay for broadening the electoral process to include minority groups with traditionally low voter registration rates.
“This legislation reaffirms our commitment to democracy . . . by giving a political voice to millions of Americans,” said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who estimated that the bill could raise voter participation in national elections by as much as 30%.