'Motor voter' law results in surge of registrations

September 03, 1995|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- In what political analysts say is the greatest expansion of voter rolls in the nation's history, more than 5 million Americans have registered to vote in the eight months since the National Voter Registration Act was enacted.

Several states report that the act -- called the "Motor Voter Law" because it permits people to register while obtaining a driving permit -- has generated threefold increases, and greater, in the pace of registrations compared with earlier years.

"There's never been a massive registration like this in such a brief period in all of the country's political history," said Lloyd Leonard, an elections specialist for the League of Women

Voters, a national organization that promotes voting.

"When women and 18-year-olds got the vote," he said, "they started off registering much more slowly. But back then, for the most part, they couldn't register when getting a driving permit, which is the key provision of 'Motor Voter.' Just about everybody drives."

Estimates are that by the turn of the century, if the surge generated by the new law continues, at least four of every five adult Americans will be registered to vote, compared with about three of every five now.

Whether increased registration will improve voter turnout on election days is only a guess at this point. In recent years, turnout has hovered around 50 percent of the eligible adult population, one of the lowest participation figures of any major democracy.

As for the politics of the new voters, only about half the states register by party and none of those that do has yet produced a breakdown. However, early indications are that, while Democrats and Republicans have benefited from the new law, the biggest surge in registrations appears to have been toward the independent column. That would tend to confirm recent election turnouts, which have also shown a rise in independent voting.

When the proposal was making its way through Congress, some opponents, mainly Republicans, feared that it would result in major Democratic gains because it would encourage registration the poor and disadvantaged, who have tended to vote for Democrats for the past 50 years.

"There's no real evidence of that so far," Mr. Leonard said. "The most striking thing we're getting is just the raw number increases overall, regardless of party."

Georgia registered 303,000 new voters between January and June of this year, compared with 85,000 registrations for all of 1994. In Iowa, there were 22,500 registrations in the first quarter of this year, compared with 8,700 for all of 1994. Kentucky had 77,000 registrations in the first quarter of 1995 but only 23,000 new enrollees in all of 1994.

Most new voters signed up while obtaining or renewing driving permits. But large numbers also took advantage of provisions requiring that welfare agencies and other government offices offer registration.

Before the new law, voter registration in many states typically took place at scattered registrar offices, sometimes at odd hours. Only a few states permitted registration at various government offices, and a handful permitted enrollment by mail.

Year in and year out, less than 63 percent of the voting-age population was registered to vote, with the young and the poor notably lagging, particularly in parts of the South.

At the start of 1995, elections experts calculated, there were about 190 million citizens of voting age; about 120 million were registered. Now, they say, in the past six months the registration figure has hit about 125 million, or almost 66 percent of all eligible citizens.

Officials of the National Motor Voter Coalition, a group of civic organizations that helped push the law through Congress, predict at least 40 million new registrations by the turn of the century.

"We think that by the midterm elections in 1998, at least 80 percent of all the voting-age population will be registered, maybe even 85 percent," said Richard Cloward, the executive director of Human Serve, one of the groups in the coalition.

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