Motor-voter registration may actually help GOP ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

April 08, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Back in 1948, when the old Boston Braves won the World Series mainly on the strength of two sturdy pitchers named Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, a wag came up with the formula for their success: "Spahn, Sain and a day of rain." Postponement of a game brought a much-needed rest for the overworked two-man pitching order.

Republicans, recalls voting expert Curtis Gans, have had their own political counterpart of that formula: "The best thing that can happen to the Republican Party on Election Day is rain."

Bad weather usually means lower voter turnout, considered a boon for Republicans who generally have been fewer in numbers than the Democrats but usually more highly motivated to get out and vote no matter what the weather.

Although more voters are identifying themselves to pollsters as Republicans and independents to the point that the traditional New Deal-era Democratic bulge in the electorate has vanished, that notion about Republicans profiting from a low turnout has survived.

That is one reason Republicans generally have opposed new schemes to increase voter registration, including the so-called "motor voter" law that President Clinton got through Congress in 1993 and has been in effect since January.

Such Republican governors as Pete Wilson in California, James Edgar in Illinois and John Engler in Michigan are defying the new law on grounds that it constitutes an unfunded mandate -- a financial burden imposed on their states to implement the registering of voters as they apply for driver's licenses. Federal judges have already ruled against California and Illinois.

The law also provides for registration of voters when they check in for public assistance, a provision that the Republicans argue is clearly aimed at putting on the rolls more low-income Americans who usually vote Democratic.

Many states are balking at having to implement this part of the law, either by refusing to set up the machinery or by going to court.

If there is any apparent tilting in the law, however, it may actually be in favor of the Republicans, because low-income voters, especially those who live in the predominantly Democratic inner cities, are less likely to own cars than are middle-income city, suburban and rural dwellers.

At any rate, early reports on the new law suggest that the Republicans no longer have to look to overcast skies for help on Election Day.

Registration in January in various states, according to Human Serve, a pro-registration group, was three to 13 times higher than in the previous January.

Some of the highest percentages of increase were posted in Southern states, where Republicans are taking giant strides in voter identification and the election of GOP officeholders at all levels of government.

Heavy registration also is being seen in the suburbs, the new electoral battleground of the nation where the Republican Party has always been strong and has made deep inroads in old blue-collar neighborhoods that once voted heavily Democratic.

Also registering in high percentages are the young, who have been notoriously lax in voting ever since the voting age was lowered to 18 but have shown increasing interest as an age group in the Republicans.

All this, says Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, suggests Republicans who are fighting the motor-voter registration law may be working against their own interests.

Registering, however, is one thing, Gans notes, and voting is another. Only about 39 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in November, and barely 50 percent in the last presidential election.

But David Plotkin, state program director for Human Serve, says that 89 percent of registered voters did cast ballots in 1992, suggesting that the turnout will rise with new registration.

He predicts that between 20 million and 30 million new registrants will go on the voting rolls before the 1996 elections. Gans estimates the increase at a minimum of 10 million.

In the end, however, Gans says, how voters feel about the issues of the day, not how they identify themselves and register by party, most likely will determine which party will benefit most by the new registration -- and whether Republicans will feel impelled to pray for rain on Election Day.

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