BOSTON — AMERICANS wishing to vote could be spared much time and hassle if a major voter registration reform is signed into law, say proponents of the so-called "motor voter" bill.
Passed along party lines by the United States House of Representatives last week by a vote of 259 to 160, the bill is expected to win approval by the Senate later this month. President Clinton has promised to sign it.
The measure would let US citizens apply for voter registration when they obtain or renew drivers' licenses. The bill also mandates that all states offer registration services by mail and at public assistance and unemployment agencies.
If signed into law, the measure would take effect in 1995.
Proponents say the bill will increase voter turnout at elections and make if far easier for many Americans to register. Supported by a national coalition of more than 65 organizations, the bill promises to create a uniform, more efficient registration system across the US, says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters in Washington.
"What this bill would do is give citizens what they deserve - a simple, convenient way to register to vote," Ms. Cain says. "We currently have a patchwork system that varies from state to state, county to county, and in some places district to district. And this bill sets up a uniform system so no matter where you live, you will have easy, convenient access to voter registration."
The motor-voter bill has been introduced in Congress three previous times. Last July, President Bush vetoed the bill after it passed both House and Senate. At the time, Mr. Bush said the bill would be too costly and could encourage voter fraud.
Republican lawmakers echoed those concerns last week. The bill, they say, encourages electoral fraud by increasing chances that ballots could be received in the names of people who have relocated or died. The lawmakers also say the bill would burden states with complex regulations and extra costs.
Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana says the measures encourage voting by illegal aliens since, he says, many of them find it easy to obtain drivers' licenses.
"If the so-called motor-voter bill pending in Congress becomes law, Zoe Baird's illegal chauffeur may be able to vote," he said in a statement.
But political observers say the real reason for Republican opposition is political. A disproportionate share of nonvoters are poor, and many of them are racial minorities living in cities - both groups that tend to vote Democratic. Therefore Republicans fear the bill will encourage increased registration of Democratic voters.
But some political experts question that logic.
"There really isn't much evidence for that among political scientists," says David King, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "It's sort of common-sense wisdom, but you don't find much support empirically."
Proponents say the bill will eliminate an archaic, ineffective system that alienates many from the democratic process. For example, the bill will not only encourage first-time voters to cast ballots, but also make it easier for people to register when they move to new cities.
In America's increasingly mobile society, one third of all adults move every two years, Cain says. So, for someone who has recently moved to a new city, a trip to the local motor-vehicles department can accomplish two things: obtaining a new drivers' license and applying for voter registration.
IN the House, Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington is one of the chief proponents of the motor-voter bill. His press secretary, Shawn Hanson, says in some rural areas people are forced to go well out of their way to register.
"There are still some barriers that exist, whether it be that they have to travel to the county seat that is only open between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesday," or some other inconvenient time and location, Ms. Hanson says.
About 30 states already have some form of motor-voter registration systems. Of those, eight states - Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington - and the District of Columbia have well-structured, comprehensive programs in place.
Over the past four years, voter turnout increased twice as much for states with well-structured motor-voter programs as those with no programs, according to the League of Women Voters.
Political observers say the passage of the motor-voter bill could give both Congress and Mr. Clinton a boost on the front-burner issue of government reform.
During his campaign, Clinton talked about the need for ethics reform in government; he has promised to introduce major campaign-finance-reform legislation.
"It is a significant step toward reform, but obviously it is a small and first step in the whole broad area of voting and campaign [reform] and the like," says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.