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State motor-voter laws have little effect on turnout; don't hitstates with another costly federal mandate

THE motor-voter bill is a cookie-cutter approach to voter registration that will be forced on all 50 states with distinct histories of voter participation and voter fraud. It would mandate voter registration through "motor voter," mail and public agencies. One detail is not addressed by the bill - how to pay for it.

The motor-voter bill is the epitome of the feel-good legislative mandates that are the modus operandi of this Congress. The motor-voter bill will not cost Congress anything.

Proponents did not risk political capital by coming up with a way to pay for the bill, they just stuck the states with the tab. States will have to make the tough decisions on how to finance it. For the bill's proponents in Washington, this is a cheap, easy "landmark" pro-democracy bill.

The cost component of this bill is dismissed by its proponents. However, keep in mind that these are the same people in Washington who speak of billions of dollars in terms of decimal points. For states, most of which are required to balance their budgets, the cost issue is not insignificant.

What is most troubling in regard to the motor-voter bill is that states are being forced to fund what I have termed a "solution in search of a problem." This bill is unnecessary. There is nothing currently stopping states from adopting the motor-voter bill, other than concerns over cost, fraud, and administration.

Twenty-seven states already have some form of motor-voter; 30 states have some form of mail registration; and 10 states have some form of public agency-based registration.

The bill before the Senate has merely taken a trend and forced it on every state in the union.

Having dismissed concerns over cost and fraud, proponents of this mandate hail it as the cure for a massive disenfranchisement of voters. They make registration procedures sound like some sinister conspiracy to keep people from voting.

Unquestionably, this bill would make registering to vote easier in most states. We should not, however, confuse "easier" with "better." It is not particularly hard, at present, to register. A few weeks out, at most, one has to have a fleeting thought about the upcoming election and perhaps go down to the courthouse or the library to register.

For three decades, registering kept getting easier, yet turnout kept going down - until 1992. Last year, there were an unusually high number of financially competitive races and a charismatic well-funded independent presidential candidate by the name of Ross Perot.

Those factors combined with an angry, highly motivated electorate resulted in a 5 percentage point increase in turnout last year. The Senate motor-voter mandate bill will force states to put more people on the rolls, but it will not lead them to the polls on Election Day.

This conclusion is borne out by two independent studies on the issue, which include:

* The Congressional Research Service examined states with motor-voter registration. Conclusion: There is no evidence that motor-voter registration increases turnout.

* The General Accounting Office studied voter registration and high voter turnout in Europe and Latin America. Conclusion: Coercion and bribery are the only sure means of increasing turnout.

Although Republicans were not able to put the brakes on the motor-voter bill in the Senate, we did force a legislative tune-up.

For example, the mandates will be a financial burden to many states and could have prompted them to avoid the costs altogether by utilizing an "escape clause" in the bill - election-day registration or no registration at all.

Under the original bill, states that have election-day registration or no registration would be exempted from the mandates. This escape clause in the bill presented the greatest threat to the integrity of the electoral process by making it virtually impossible to verify voter eligibility.

By plugging this loophole in the bill, Senate Republicans assured that states would not be pushed into election-day registration.

While states would still be required to provide agency-based registration, Republicans removed the requirement that welfare and unemployment recipients be solicited for registration. These citizens, financially dependent on the government, are particularly vulnerable to intimidation, overt or implicit.

The strong feelings expressed by the voters in 1992's dramatically increased turnout demand strong action. We need to improve our economy, create jobs, cut the deficit, and ensure our long-term competitive strength in the world economy. Motor-voter has nothing to do with any of those serious objectives.

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