'Motor voter' law likely to be bigger priority for states

By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

President Clinton signed the "motor voter" law 17 years ago amid much fanfare, but voting rights groups say it has not been fully enforced.

As a result, says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, "it has never been a top priority for states."

That may be about to change. The Justice Department released new guidelines for the motor voter law last month, saying all public-assistance applicants must be given the opportunity to register and state employees must offer to help them.

"I think what you're going to see is an increased attention to enforcement," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which represents state election officials.

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Already, some states are making changes. A legal settlement in Missouri led to more than 200,000 voter-registration applications from welfare offices in less than two years. A settlement in Ohio has led to more than 100,000 this year. Lawsuits are pending in Indiana and New Mexico.

The lawsuits were brought by three groups: Project Vote, Demos and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Lisa Danetz, senior counsel for Demos, which advocates higher levels of voting, says more legal action is needed. "I truthfully think that we're just going to go one by one through the states," she says.

That would be a waste of taxpayer money, says California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, top Republican on the House elections subcommittee.

"Forcing public agencies to expend large sums of taxpayer dollars fighting frivolous lawsuits probably isn't the most efficient way to ensure full access to the voter-registration process," he says. "We should be using technology, not lawsuits."

Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department and Federal Election Commission official, says the drop in registrations at welfare offices is due to plummeting welfare caseloads since 1994 and the ease of registering to vote when getting driver's licenses.

A Census Bureau survey in November 2008 found those most likely to register at welfare agencies had family income of less than $10,000. Blacks, Hispanics, naturalized citizens and those without a high school diploma also were more likely to register there.

State officials say it's their job to sign up those people. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose state settled with the Justice Department in 2002, says his election officials provide training and materials to public-aid offices. Nearly 15% of the state's voter applications come from those offices.

After a November 2009 settlement, Ohio beefed up voter registration in welfare offices through training, advertising and ample supplies of applications. "It reaches a community that can be hard to reach and gives them an opportunity that perhaps they haven't had," says Kevin Kidder, spokesman for the Ohio secretary of State's office.

North Carolina, Virginia and other states have taken action, but some don't offer the same outreach. "They came to ignore it, because no one was checking up on them," says Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

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