Illinois Court Drives Motor-Voter Debate

IN a case that could shape the size of voter rolls in some key electoral states, Illinois faces a tough court battle today as it challenges federal efforts to force its compliance with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) -- the so-called ''Motor-Voter Act''

Illinois and six other states -- California, Michigan, South Carolina, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana -- have been sued by the federal government and voter-advocacy groups for not complying with the act. Kansas is likely to be sued this month after failing to pass enabling legislation for the act, which took effect on Jan. 1 and aims to increase voter registration.

The federal government contends that the states are impeding citizens' basic right to vote. States retort that the law is an unconstitutional and expensive imposition.

The Illinois case is significant because the Seventh US Court of Appeals will be the highest court to rule on the issue so far. A win or loss by Illinois could set a precedent for states fighting the law on similar grounds. Lower courts have already ordered Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania to obey the law.

The NVRA requires states to allow eligible citizens to register when applying for a driver's license, by mail, and at all state public assistance and disability agencies. The law applies only to voter registration for federal elections.

Since the law took effect, millions of people across the country have registered to vote for the first time. If current rates continue, an estimated 20 million of the 70 million voting-age citizens who are not registered will do so by the end of next year, according to David Plotkin at Human SERVE, a New York-based voter advocacy group.

Supporters of the NVRA stress that with every passing month, tens of thousands of would-be registrants are slipping by in Illinois and other states that have defied the law. They charge that the Republican-led states oppose the law because they are concerned, despite evidence to the contrary, that it will put more poor, minority, and Democratic-leaning voters on the rolls. Every state fighting the law, except Louisiana, has a Republican governor.

Opponents of the law deny harboring political motives, asserting instead that the NVRA is unconstitutional.

''This is not to keep people from voting,'' says Tyrone Fahner, the lead attorney for Illinois. ''This is about trying to get the federal government to quit creating taxing obligations on the state without providing the money to do it,'' he says. ''The federal government cannot commandeer state government.''

Lawyers for Illinois and California argue that the NVRA is unconstitutional because it exceeds Congress's power to legislate by directly compelling the states to enact and enforce a federal program. This argument, based on a 1992 ruling by the Supreme Court in New York v. United States, was dismissed by two district courts. In a strongly worded decision on March 28, US District Court Judge Milton Shadur called Illinois's argument ''a clumsily handled shell game.''

State officials also contend the NVRA is a costly unfunded federal mandate. In Illinois, for example, Gov. Jim Edgar estimates that compliance with the law would cost taxpayers ''more than $20 million.'' Most of that money, however, would go toward setting up a new, state-wide computerized voting network, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which puts the total cost without the network at less than $1 million.

IN contrast, backers of the NVRA call the Illinois cost estimate ''absurd.'' They note that states such as Florida and Alabama are starting from scratch to implement the law and spending $1 million or less.

Illinois and other states claim, moreover, that the law will promote voter fraud by allowing registration by mail and placing restrictions on how voting rolls are purged. Illinois -- Chicago in particular -- has a history of ''ghost voters,'' multiple registration, and other classic examples of voter fraud.

''This law would be an invitation to election fraud in Illinois,'' says Mike Lawrence, spokesman for Governor Edgar.

But supporters of the NVRA contend that Illinois's current practice of purging names from voting rolls when people do not vote is an infringement of voters' rights. The law's safeguards are adequate, they assert. Congress, not Illinois, has the power to set registration rules for federal elections, they maintain.

A decision in the Illinois case is expected within weeks. If Illinois loses, the governor will ''seriously consider'' appealing to the Supreme Court, Lawrence says. Nevertheless, the state is also quietly making preparations to comply with the NVRA if required to do so, Fahner says.

''We don't want it to look like the state is dragging its feet for political reasons,'' he says.

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