There is no issue more central to the Democratic process than that of open access to the ballot. The proponents of the "motor voter" legislation and I do not disagree that more Americans should exercise their right to vote. We do disagree about the impact this bill will have on voting behavior.
The motor voter bill would create a National System of Voter Registration procedures, including voter registration by mail, voter registration at all state and federal agencies, mailings to all registered voters to verify address, a requirement for purging of voters who have moved and additional administrative provisions.All of this, supporters argue, would increase the voter registration rolls. I agree, but to what end?
One would assume that increased voter registration will result in more voters at the polls. This goal is indeed noble. However, in my view the motor voter legislation will not achieve it.
The statistics from my own state of Nevada bear this out. In the 1984 presidential election, Nevada registered 42 percent of all eligible voters and had a turnout rate of 80 percent.
In the 1988 presidential election, motor voter was initiated in Nevada and voter registration had indeed increased to 44 percent; unfortunately, the turnout rate actually dropped 3 percentage points.
Despite the motor voter program in Nevada, the state finds itself among only a handful of states in which under 70 percent of eligible voters are registered to vote. Proponents concede, as the figures from my state indicate, that this legislation will not increase voter turnout. Why then are we going to spend more than $50 million for the sole purpose of adding names to the voter rolls?
There is evidence to suggest that voter registration procedures are not a significant factor in low voter participation. A recent CBS-New York Times poll of non-voters showed that 97 percent of non-voters gave reasons other than problems with the voter registration process as reasons for not voting. One has to wonder how this legislation is going to increase participation.
The $50 million provided in this legislation to increase voter registration is at best a very rough estimate of the real cost. In fact, state officials have indicated that it is possible that this initiative could exceed $1 billion.
The $50 million is meant to cover all initial start-up and operating costs. The state of Illinois has determined that the cost of implementation would total more than $37 million. If this estimate is accurate, only $13 million would remain to fund the remainder of the country.
Further, the bill does not reimburse states in the event that costs exceed the $50 million authorized. Direct costs to states and localities could be devastating to local government budgets. It is no coincidence that many local election officials, including the State of California Clerks Association, oppose the passage of the motor voter bill.
Serious fraud issues are also raised by this legislation. In fact, I believe it is an invitation for voter fraud. The motor voter legislation requires mail registration without the benefit of notarization or signature verification, does not require verification of U.S. citizenship and does not allow the purging of non-voters from voter lists. Most important, it will replace all state voter fraud laws, regardless of whether the original law is able to grant the state better protection against voter fraud.
We all want to see every eligible American voter at the polls on election day, but this legislation does nothing to make this a reality. Instead it promises to create a bureaucratic muddle and a fiscal nightmare.
Each state is working to increase voter participation and awareness at its own pace and in ways that make sense for its unique circumstances. Let's not impose some Rube Goldberg scheme that only makes the job of the states more difficult.