'Motor Voter' gets mixed reviews

January 19, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Dana Hedgpeth and Sherrie Ruhl contributed to this article.

If you walk into a Motor Vehicle Administration or social service office today, be prepared for a new question: Are you registered to vote?

It is the result of the National Voter Registration Act and a companion Maryland bill that went into effect Jan. 3, allowing citizens to apply to register by mail, in motor vehicle offices and many other government agencies.

In Maryland, with a population of 5 million, there are 2 1/2 million registered voters, but 3 1/2 million licensed drivers. The statewide goal of the so-called "Motor Voter" law is to register an additional 1 million voters, said Gene Raynor, state administrator of elections.

"Obviously, more people are interested in driving an automobile than casting their vote. I would prefer it the other way," he said.

The national motor voter law was enacted in May 1993 after a two-month Republican filibuster in the Senate. Democrats, who stand to gain because the bill targets agencies that serve low-income residents, generally supported the measure. Republicans opposed it, arguing that it opens the door to fraud and voting abuse.

Under the provisions of the legislation, workers at state agencies ask clients whether they're interested in registration and offer those who say yes a form they can fill out on the spot. So far, implementation of the law is uneven and reaction is mixed.

It's "working smooth as silk" at the Glen Burnie MVA, according to John Lyding, who directs the driver's license department. Clerks say they are signing up about 80 people daily.

At Baltimore's Department of Social Services downtown, administrator Roger Fenner Sr. had a 4-inch stack of applications on his desk -- the result of offering registration to clients along with standard social services paperwork, he said.

But the director of the Catonsville Senior Center, part of the Baltimore County Department of Aging, was unfamiliar with the law, and the Towson branch of the Department of Rehabilitation had not begun implementing it by late last week. Several clients interviewed at other government agencies said they had not been approached about registration.

Effort 'not going badly'

Vicki Pfannenstein, Baltimore coordinator of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, said the registration effort is "not going badly" in her office and that her staff has registered several people each day since Jan. 3. Even so, she said, "I think that some clients probably feel that they came for a health service, and they're caught off guard when they're asked to register to vote, and we feel the same way -- that it takes away from our focus of giving nutrition education and enrolling people on WIC."

Caroline Gramil, the Maryland election board's coordinator for the National Voter Registration Act, conceded that this is a valid concern. "We hope clients understand that we are not trying to pressure them, nor are we off the wall," she said.

There are other issues, officials said. Clients who come in for social services may be asked to apply more than once, and some administrators say they may have to keep records of those who have filled out registration forms to avoid duplication.

Mr. Raynor said time will take care of the initial problems. "I'm sure it's going to have little situations that will have to be ironed out," he said.

Not everyone jumps at the chance to register. Most Maryland counties draw their jury pools from voter lists, and several people waiting in state offices said they won't sign up to vote because they want to avoid jury duty.

But that dodge may no longer work for large numbers of metropolitan residents. Baltimore already uses a list that includes voter registrations and drivers' license records, and Baltimore County Jury Commissioner Nancy Tilton said her office wants to start using MVA records this year.

Whether getting more citizens registered will result in a higher voter turnout is a matter of debate.

"I don't want to vote for nobody; they're not going to help me," said Desreene Fowlin, 24, a mother of four waiting in the Towson branch of the Department of Social Services.

But will they vote?

Skeptics say Ms. Fowlin's view is common among the unregistered.

"The motor voter bill really opens up the number of people that will be registered. . . . It doesn't make them go to the polls," said Kent Swanson, Baltimore County's Republican chairman.

From a policy standpoint in Maryland, sentiment about the value of the law is split along partisan lines.

"A lot of people think [registration] is very complicated and difficult, and if we can make it easier for them, I don't see what can be wrong with that," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, Maryland's Democratic Party chairman.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey this week gave up a court battle to overturn the 1994 election results after alleging widespread fraud and voting irregularities. Most of her charges were never proven.

Still, Maryland Republican leaders say they're concerned that the motor voter law will swell the rolls with residents who don't vote but are never purged -- one of the major issues Mrs. Sauerbrey raised in her challenge.

Joyce L. Terhes, Maryland's Republican chairwoman, said enlarging the voter rolls with people who have no intention of voting increases the cost of running for office.

She also raised the issue of possible fraud because applicants are not required to show identification when they register.

Mr. Raynor said registrants sign an oath confirming their identity; they can be prosecuted for lying.

While 31 states had some form of motor voter registration policy before the federal law was enacted, not all have embraced the concept. California Gov. Pete Wilson filed a lawsuit to halt implementation of the law last month because Congress provided no money to finance it, leaving the expense to the states.

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