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High Court Backs Law to Spur Voter Registration

Electorate: It rejects Gov. Wilson's challenge of measure as unfunded U.S. mandate. Move allows citizens in all states to sign up by mail or in motor vehicle, welfare offices.

January 23, 1996|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected Gov. Pete Wilson's challenge to the federal "motor-voter law," clearing the way for a national drive seeking to sign up the millions of Americans who are not registered to vote.

All states must now permit citizens 18 and older to register by mail or in state motor vehicle and welfare offices. The law also bars states from purging voters from their rolls for not voting.

A coalition of liberal and civil rights groups, joined by the Clinton administration, proclaimed Monday's court action a victory for democracy. The League of Women Voters predicted that the simple sign-up system could increase the voter rolls by 20 million by election day.

"The door to the voting booth just opened a lot wider. This will make sure that democracy belongs to everyone," said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the ACLU in Los Angeles, which won a court order in June forcing state officials to implement the 1993 law.

"Today California is at the end of the line in challenging the law," said Deval L. Patrick, the administration's civil rights chief. "This law is not just constitutional. It's common sense. It's making it easier for all Americans to register to vote."

A disappointed Wilson called the law "another unfunded federal mandate." State officials also said that they are skeptical of claims that many more people would register.

"It's already been so easy to register in California. We have had mail-in registration [since 1976]; so we don't anticipate a huge jump," said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones.

It's also not clear that citizens will vote even if they are registered. A national Los Angeles Times poll conducted in October found that fewer than one-third of those who were not registered to vote said they would register in time for this year's election. Of those polled who did not vote in 1992, only 5% said that it was because they were not registered.

Nonetheless, voting-rights advocates said that easier registration could transform the electorate. The Census Bureau has estimated that, of the 190 million people 18 and older in the United States, 72 million are not registered to vote.

"We are experiencing the largest voter-registration increase in American history," said Richard Cloward, executive director of HumanServe, a New York group that lobbied for the National Voter Register Act. He estimated that 8 million new voters joined the rolls last year, even before such large states as California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan implemented the new registration procedures.

In California, the ACLU said that an extra 100,000 people per month have been registering since the state began implementing the new law.

While the court case dealt with the Constitution's division of power between the states and the federal government, partisan politics clearly played a role in enactment of the measure and the legal fight to stop it.

Because those who are not registered are disproportionately poor and members of minority groups, political experts have assumed that they would vote heavily Democratic.

The Democratic-controlled Congress first passed similar legislation in 1992 but Republican President George Bush vetoed it. Congress passed the measure again in 1993 and President Clinton, having defeated Bush in 1992, signed it.

After the bill was signed into law, Republican Gov. Wilson refused to offer voter registration through offices of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. He projected that it would cost an extra $18 million a year to pay for more staff and extra forms.

In court, Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren argued that the Constitution did not allow federal officials to "commandeer" state agencies and put them to work for the federal government.

In support of that position, the high court under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had said repeatedly that the states are "sovereign" entities, not mere divisions of the federal government.

Congress can enlist the states to do its bidding by offering them money, the court had held. That's how programs such as Medicaid, welfare and education aid operate.

Four years ago, for example, the Supreme Court struck down Congress' attempt to force states to build nuclear waste dumps. "One thing is clear: The federal government may not compel the states to enact or administer a federal regulatory program," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said for the court. But federal elections are another matter. Article 1, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution says that Congress may "make or alter" rules governing the elections of federal officeholders that "shall be prescribed in each state."

Based on that clause, U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Francisco rejected Wilson's challenge to the law. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals did the same in July.

"Congress may conscript state agencies to carry out voter registration for the election of representatives and senators," the appeals court said.

The governor appealed to the Supreme Court in October. But in a one-line order, the justices refused to hear the case (Wilson vs. Voting Rights Coalition, 95-673).

In other actions, the court:

* Let stand a $1.5-million jury verdict against a mother and three fellow Christian Scientists who prayed for the woman's dying son but did not get medical care for him (McKown vs. Lundman, 95-355).

The Minnesota courts blocked criminal prosecution of the four but upheld the divorced father's lawsuit seeking damages for his son's wrongful death. The justices refused to hear the claim that this verdict violated freedom of religion.

* Refused to hear Pennsylvania's claim that it need not follow Medicaid's rules for abortions in cases of rape and incest (Knoll vs. Blackwell Clinic, 95-820). The court rejected nearly identical claims from Nebraska and Colorado in recent months.

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