The Senate has now passed its version of the Motor Voter Bill. Like the House version passed earlier this year, this one makes applications for drivers' licenses (and renewals) the equivalent of voter registration forms and also authorizes uniform mail-in voter registration. The versions differ in some other respects. If agreement is reached between House and Senate, President Clinton is commited to sign the bill into law. He personally lobbied to get Senate votes for it.
Republican opposition to the bill had emphasized the cost the program will impose on states and the increased potential for fraud. Republican senators relented and ended an effective filibuster only when registration at welfare and unemployment offices was removed from the bill and registration at military recruitment offices was added. This suggests real Republican opposition was to the potential for a net increase in Democratic votes under the House version. (The outcome suggests that Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate won't be able to roll over Republican opposition on other measures later without a willingness to compromise.)
A number of states have motor voter and mail-in registration. Experience suggests that a federal law applying those to all the states will increase turnout by only 2 or 3 percentage points at most. Turnout is a better indicator of citizen participation than registration, of course. In some jurisdictions turnout has not increased at all after similar liberal registration laws went into effect. In at least three states it has gone down.
That does not make this bad legislation. More people ought to have the ability to vote, even if they choose not to. The cost factor is what makes it bad legislation. California expects to have to spend $26 million. Even Maryland, which already has one of the most progressive and open registration systems in the country, could still end up having to spend several million dollars to print new forms. No federal funds for this are expected.
An incidental problem with this legislation is that it allows many members of Congress to pretend that they have dealt with the scandal of non-participation in the electoral process. And scandal it is. Only about half of the voting age population votes in presidential elections. The record is much worse in off-year congressional elections. But the reason for this is not registration roadblocks. The real reason, as public opinion surveys and other investigations have found, is that so many citizens hold politics and politicians irrelevant or in contempt -- or both.