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Just another mandate.

Getting more people registered to vote may be a good idea, but not when it comes as an unfunded mandate from the feds.

Here come the feds. Again. Add voter registration to the list of federally mandated state programs. And, as usual, this one comes without any federal funds to do what will be required of the states.

Officially titled the National Voter Registration Act, but popularly known as the motor voter bill, the legislation recently enacted by Congress encompasses much more than allowing people to register to vote when they apply for driver's licenses.

In addition to that method of encouraging voter registration, states must establish ways for citizens to register by mail and at state offices. States will be required to provide registration to clients at all public assistance offices and at state funded offices that serve people with disabilities. Recruitment offices of the armed services must offer voter registration applications. States may designate additional registration sites at unemployment offices, and are encouraged to designate other locations as voter registration agencies--including public libraries, public schools, fishing and hunting license bureaus, government revenue offices and other offices that provide services to people with disabilities.

The legislation prohibits removal of a voter's name for one failure to vote. A voter's name can be removed after failure to respond to a notice and failure to vote in the two following elections. Otherwise, a name may be removed from the registration list only at the request of the registrant or because of criminal conviction, mental incapacity, death or a change in residency. A change of address must be confirmed by the registrant in writing.

States must allow registered voters both to update their addresses and to vote on election day--at the state's choice of either the old or new polling place--if they have moved within the same registrar's jurisdiction and the same congressional district. Other provisions require designation of an official to coordinate the state's responsibilities under the act. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is directed to prescribe a mail registration application form, and report to Congress its assessment of the act's impact and its recommendations following each general federal election. States may develop their own mail registration form if it is in compliance with the act, but if a citizen sends in a federal form, they must accept it.

The federal mandates will take effect Jan. 1, 1995. In states that must amend their constitutions to comply with the law, the effective date will be Jan. 1, 1996, or 120 days after it is legally possible for their constitutions to be amended without requiring special elections.

Three states are home free from having to comply with any provisions of the bill: Minnesota, because it allows election day registration at the polls; North Dakota, which does not require voters to register; and Wyoming, which enacted election day registration in its 1993 session, contingent on passage of the federal legislation.

Wisconsin may be in compliance because it allows election day registration at the polls, but there may be a question about local jurisdictions where that is not the case. Maine allows election day registration at the town clerk's office rather than at the polls, which does not comply with the federal mandate.

Supporters of the federal legislation contend that making registration easier will increase voter turnout for elections. Opponents question whether increasing the number of registered voters will result in more participation on election day, and also argue that it presents an opportunity for fraud through duplicate registrations.

Motor voter registration, in various forms, is currently offered or will be implemented beginning in 1994 in 30 states and the District of Columbia. But many of the existing programs are not in compliance with the legislation Congress enacted, so states will have to upgrade their programs.

In states that have comprehensive programs and that maintain data collection systems for motor voter transactions, increases in both registration and voter turnout are greater than in other states, according to 100% VOTE/Human SERVE, a nonprofit organization that promotes voter registration at public agencies. According to 100% VOTE, in the 1992 elections--compared with 1988--registration increased 3.6 percent and voter turnout was up 12.3 percent in states with motor voter programs. That was five times the increase of 0.78 percent in registration and twice the increase in voter turnout, 6.7 percent, in states without these programs.

On one point there is no argument: Meeting the federal mandates will cost the states money. The only disagreement is how much. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates compliance will cost the states an average of about $20 million a year for the first five years--for staff, postage and printing expenses. In addition to that, one-time costs to computerize registration lists would amount to less than $25 million, according to the CBO. The legislation does not require states to establish computerized lists, but election officials say that computers would be necessary to meet federal mandates. The bill does provide a postage subsidy of about $4 million annually.

Nobody is certain, however, how much it will cost the states to comply with the federal mandates. Some state election officials maintain that costs will be significantly more than the CBO projections. Some cost estimates differ significantly from the CBO's figures. In testimony before a House subcommittee, Tony Bernhard, a California county clerk, estimated the cost to California alone could be $26.1 million a year. But Texas, another populous state, reported that it implemented motor voter registration with no new expenditures--and within the first five months of operation registered 48,511 voters.

Another item not included in any cost projections is what it will cost the states to record, assemble and transmit required reports to the federal government. To satisfy reporting requirements, the states will have to compile data regarding the number, method and disposition of registration applications received; the method, frequency and consequences of confirming the voter registration lists; the number of and reasons for deletions from voter registration lists; the number of people of voting age and the percentage of those who are registered; and the number, types and costs of various mailings required under the bill.

On the other hand, supporters of the new federal program say that states can realize cost savings by eliminating deputy registrar systems that will no longer be necessary.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:requirements of the National Voter Registration Act
Author:Neal, Tommy
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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