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WRONG WAY ON 'MOTOR VOTER' PATAKI SHOULD CLARIFY STAND ON REGISTRATION LAW

NEW YORKERS must hope a Pataki appointee's lobbying against the federal "motor voter" law is a Lone Ranger initiative. It would be disappointing indeed if Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard Jackson's push for a repeal of the law were supported by the governor.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, implemented last year in New York State, makes it easier for citizens to register to vote. It allows them to register through motor vehicle offices and offices where welfare checks are issued or by mail.

This law encourages people to participate more directly in their representative government -- a thoroughly democratic action that government has a duty to promote, not discourage.

Commissioner Jackson doesn't seem to understand that vision. He's urging members of Congress from New York to work for repeal of the federal legislation that required states to set up this kind of voter registration process by last Jan. 1. In New York, state agencies have enrolled 49,000 new voters since then. Normally, few people register during these winter months.

"I think everyone should register to vote," Jackson says, "and I think it is a goal that we should all be striving to achieve. But I think the individual should take the individual responsibility to register."

But motor-voter legislation doesn't destroy or weaken the individual's responsibility to register. Jackson wants to repeal legislation that makes it more convenient for people to accomplish what he himself claims to consider their responsibility.

Nor is his complaint about the law's price tag of $1.8 million for New York at all persuasive. That is hardly exorbitant for expanding the opportunities of tens of thousands of New Yorkers to get more directly involved in their own government by voting. What, pray tell, would Jackson consider a fair price for that?

Gov. Pataki has proposed cutting the motor-voter budget by half for this year, an economy that looks disproportionate even in a budget crisis. But the governor has not directed Albany's lobbyists in Washington to push for repeal of the national law -- and he shouldn't. He rightly voted as a state senator in favor of the New York enabling legislation.

Pataki must to do more, though, than simply refrain from joining his motor vehicles commissioner. This is a substantial policy matter. The governor needs to repudiate this benighted effort publicly, leaving no question where he stands, and instruct Jackson to return to his duties of administering the law rather than trying to unmake it.

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