ALTHOUGH record numbers of people cast ballots in last fall's presidential election, more than one-third of Americans who were eligible to vote - some 70 million citizens - were not registered; they couldn't take part in the election. When people are asked why they didn't vote in a particular election, most respond, "because I wasn't registered."
People should not be forced to vote, and the Congress should not try to mandate participation. However, I do believe that our democratic government has an affirmative duty to reduce to an absolute minimum the roadblocks government puts between a citizen and the ballot box. Our country has an unfortunate history of keeping the "wrong" kind of people from voting. Throughout too much of our history, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other hurdles were used to prevent European and Asian immigrants, the rural p oor, and blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated many of the most obvious discriminatory tactics. However, in testimony before the Elections Subcommittee I chair, we found, even in this day, jurisdictions that deprived Americans of their right to vote through overly restrictive registration practices.
It stands to reason that if you believe that all eligible citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote, then there should be no objection to passing a law making it easier to register. The National Voter Registration Act does just that by tearing down most of the remaining bureaucratic barriers that have been erected by the government between the citizen and his or her right to vote.
The "motor voter" bill, as it is nicknamed, would allow eligible citizens to apply to register to vote at the same time they get or renew their driver's licenses. The legislation also includes application for registration by mail and at some government agencies that typically come in contact with people who might not drive, such as the aged, the disabled, or the very poor. Voter lists would be kept up-to-date by making use of the United States Postal Service's national Change of Address Program or by sen ding address verification cards at least once every four years. The bill also has tough provisions to guard against fraud by making it a federal crime if anyone knowingly or willfully applies for registration when not eligible to vote. That is a new fraud protection.
The National Voter Registration Act will offer more than 90 percent of the eligible citizens the opportunity to register through the motor-voter provision. Most others will be given the opportunity to register by mail or at social-service agencies.
The motor-voter bill is not a new idea. I first heard about linking registration to driver's licenses when Ralph Munro, the Republican secretary of state in my state of Washington, brought up the idea at a hearing a few years ago. It made sense because most of the information needed for voter registration is asked for when a person gets his or her driver's license, and any additional information such as citizenship could be asked for at that time as well. Almost every state in the country requires a pict ure identification for a driver's license - what better way to protect against potential voter fraud?
The motor-voter bill is not radical in any sense of the imagination. It doesn't change the qualifications for voter registration or prohibit any of the methods of registering people that states currently use. Some critics charge, however, that motor-voter registration will cost too much. Yet registering people this way is actually less expensive than through many other techniques. For example, it is estimated to cost between $1 and $15 per transaction when using deputy registrars. In contrast, motor-vote r costs have been estimated between 3 cents and 33 cents per transaction. The motor-voter bill also provides reduced postage rates for states sending out address verification cards - which will ultimately save states money in sending out election materials.
The House first passed my motor-voter bill in the 101st Congress, only to have it filibustered to death in the Senate. It passed the House and Senate last year, but President Bush vetoed it. Now both houses have passed motor-voter bills, and the differences between the two bills are currently being worked out in a conference committee. Last fall, when then-President Bush vetoed the bill, candidate Bill Clinton commented that he would not have vetoed a measure that would make democracy more inclusive for more people.
When Mr. Clinton took office he made passage of the motor-voter bill one of his top priorities. I hope that we will have a bill very shortly to send to him for his signature on what I hope will be the first of several reforms. There should be nothing partisan in making our democracy work better. It is a concern and responsibility for each one of us in Congress; the time for action is now.