Gov. Pete Wilson is at it again. This time he's defying the law of the land by refusing to implement the National Voter Registration Act, commonly called the "motor voter" law. Mandated to go into effect Jan. 1, this law facilitates voter registration by making sign-up possible through the mail and at government offices, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Virtually all of the other 49 states were poised to implement this sound legislation. But not California. Apparently, our governor thinks that Congress made a mistake when it sought to eliminate unnecessary obstacles to voter registration and make it easier for citizens to exercise their voting rights.
The National Voter Registration Act is long overdue. The United States has one of the lowest voter participation rates of all democratic countries. One reason is that states have made registration a chore. Do you know where to go to register or to re-register after a move? Most citizens don't, except for chance encounters with volunteer registrars outside their neighborhood supermarkets.
Commitment to our democratic system should generate support for laws like "motor voter," which experts predict will raise registration and, ultimately, voter turnout rates above 90%.
Sadly, Gov. Wilson is refusing to implement the measure in California. His feigned reason is that it will cost the state $20 million. The secretary of state's office puts the cost at no more than $5 million, about one-hundredth of 1% of the state budget--a small price to pay for democracy. It's hard to justify California spending more money--a lot more--to induce its citizens to buy lottery tickets than to expedite voter registration.
Registration and voter turnout efforts by political parties don't target everyone; the parties invest millions and millions of dollars on these activities to enfranchise likely supporters.
Politicians like Pete Wilson really don't want an expanded electorate beyond the voters who elected them. That's the real reason for the governor's intransigence: "Motor voter" may increase registration among poor and minority Californians. For them, universal suffrage is now only a promise heard in Fourth of July speeches.
Wilson's blocking of "motor voter" is reminiscent of Southern governors' barring black children from integrating public schools. And make no mistake, our governor's action will hurt poor and minority communities. Research shows, for example, that only 25% of eligible Latinos are registered to vote, compared to 60% of the white voting-age population. The National Voter Registration Act offers a practical solution to this problem that merits the backing, not the opposition, of our elected leaders.
A larger concern looms over the governor's thwarting of the law. By refusing to implement the new procedures, he is telling Californians that their right of franchise is not important to him. He is also telling them that California is exempt from federal law. But California has come a long way from the Bear Flag republic of 1849, unbound by federal authority. California is part of the United States and is subject to its laws. The governor's defiance of an act of Congress is just plain illegal.
This all may just be political grand-standing or the first skirmish with the Clinton Administration on the road to the 1996 election campaign. But our right to vote is too precious to be held hostage for political purposes.
Last year, Americans watched blacks in South Africa exercise their franchise for the first time in that nation's history. Images of elderly men and women weeping as they took advantage of their birthright singed the conscience of America. Our nation has its own agonized legacy of accomplishing universal suffrage. Women, blacks and 18- to 20-year-olds all fought hard battles for the right to be included in the democratic process. But the right of franchise has not guaranteed that all eligible Americans have reasonable access to the electoral process.
The National Voter Registration Act gives every state the tools to increase voter registration of eligible Americans. The governor of California should be leading the charge, not the resistance.