Boston — Hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- who did not vote last November because they were not registered, may have sat out their last election. National and state civic groups, labor unions, and other organizations are increasingly banding together to make it easier for citizens to participate in the electoral process.
Voter registration by mail is one idea that's getting plenty of attention.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, most of them within the past decade, have adopted this arrangement as an alternative to signing up at the city hall or town offices.
Similar measures have been under consideration this year in at least 19 other states, including here in Massachusetts, where an estimated 1.3 million potential voters are not enrolled.
Federal legislation for mail-in registration is expected to come before a congressional panel later this year. That proposal, filed by US Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights and the House Administration Committee.
A related measure would allow post offices to give local voter registrars copies of residents' change-of-address cards. That bill is sponsored by US Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California and is also before the Administration Committee.
In this way, registrars could keep track of voters moving in and out of their districts and could mail registration information to new residents who neglect to re-enroll.
Estimates on the number of eligible-but-unregistered voters vary greatly, from 43 million to 59 million. These figures include a substantial number of elderly, handicapped, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.
Mail registration, cited by New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) as the cheapest and most widely used voter-enrollment system in his state, avoids the need for special hours and locations for registering.
``There is definitely a lot more interest all around in opening up the system to some form of mail-in registration,'' observes Mary Stone of the League of Women Voters Education Fund.
Groups backing the idea include Ms. Stone's organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.
They maintain that making registration more convenient and accessible is government's responsibility.
``We do all kinds of things by mail. We pay our water bills. We pay our taxes. Why should there be any problem using the mail to register to vote?'' Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) asked last month at a Harvard University symposium on voter registration.
While prospects for passage of the Bay State proposal are uncertain, State Rep. John A. Bussinger (D), who has been sponsoring such legislation for the last 13 years without success, says he is ``greatly encouraged'' by the increasing level of support.
Equally enthusiastic is Massachusetts Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, who has pushed for by-mail voter registration since taking office in 1978.
Critics of the idea, including State Rep. Andrew S. Natsios (R) warn that it could lead to fraud and that there's no assurance the alternative registration method will increase voter turnout.
But proponents note that the Bay State proposal requires by-mail registrants sign an affadivit verifying the accuracy of the information provided. And each enrollment form would have to be counter-signed by a already registered voter, who would list his name and address.
Each applicant would be checked against the latest street listings of residents. If the applicant did not appear on the list and further in-person or mail checks would made.
Those guilty of illegal registration, or assisting in such an attempted fraud, would be subject to a fine of up to $2,000, twice the current maximum penalty in Massachusetts. Violators could also be imprisoned for up to two years.
Besides Massachusetts, mail-in voter registration measures are being considered in nine other states: Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.
Such alternative systems are already available in Alaska, California, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.