Attorney General Janet Reno is readying court actions to force a handful of states to comply with a federal law easing voter registration, administration officials said Sunday.
Lawsuits could be filed as early as Monday against up to five states - California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina - although the officials said some of those states could avoid the suits as a result of last-minute discussions with state officials or evaluations of state efforts to comply.
In particular, officials were studying whether Michigan had done enough to comply with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, according to the officials, who requested anonymity.
The law, passed with strong Democratic support over considerable Republican opposition, requires all states to provide voter registration through the driver licensing process, through the mail and at state social service offices.
“Nobody is going to understand why simply handing out a voter registration form at a motor vehicle agency is unreasonable,” said one federal official engaged in the enforcement effort.
Reno planned to announce her actions to enforce the law at a Monday afternoon news conference with her civil rights chief, Assistant Attorney General Deval L. Patrick, the officials said.
Nicknamed the “motor voter law,” it was signed by President Clinton in May 1993 and set a Jan. 1, 1995, deadline for compliance. Last May, Reno warned 23 states that still had not complied that she would sue to enforce the law if they missed the deadline.
Two Republican governors - Pete Wilson of California and Carroll Campbell of South Carolina - have defied the law openly.
Earlier this month, Campbell vetoed a state compliance law as he was leaving office, arguing that it challenged state sovereignty and could open the way for registration fraud.
Campbell’s successor, Republican David Beasley, has pledged to “fight the Justice Department all the way.”
In December, Wilson ordered California agencies not to implement the law and sued in federal court to block it. California argued the law infringed on states’ rights and would force the state to take expensive actions without providing money for them.
Justice Department officials have said they would defend the law’s constitutionality in the California case. Any enforcement action could come as a separate lawsuit or a counterclaim in that case.
Wilson said the law would cost his state $35 million. “We cannot and will not passively suffer Washington’s imperious will,” he wrote in USA Today. But federal officials said California election officials estimated the state’s cost at only $5 million.