State, local governments join citizens' groups to register voters. Aim is to increase the number of poor and minorities who register

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In New York, state offices now offer information about voter registration. Last year, Vermont and Texas began deputizing state workers to sign up voters in various state offices. And in Los Angeles County, Calif., health and food-stamp workers are under court order to solicit voter registration among their clients.

Across the country, state and local government offices have become the sites of a new voter registration drive. More and more states are engaging in some form of registration, from posting information to using state workers to sign up voters.

The practice has spread partly through heavy lobbying by nonpartisan citizen groups hoping to reach hitherto ``hidden'' voters: low-income and minority groups.

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``It's a way of reaching those who are shut out of the system,'' says Sandy Newman, executive director of Project Vote!, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C.

In 1984, Project Vote! registered 528,851 new voters, half of whom were found in social service lines, Ms. Newman said. The Churches Committee for Voter Registration-Education estimates it registered 250,000 voters through the same method.

Because of obstacles in many states, Human SERVE, in New York City, has focused on pressuring states to undertake measures to register voters.

Although half the states permit mail-in registration, others allow only deputized officials to register residents. In still others, potential voters must travel two or three hours to the county seat. North Dakota is the one state that has no registration, asking voters only to sign an affidavit that they reside there.

The emphasis on state-sponsored registration stems from suggesting a correlation between voting and registration. ``Once registered, the poor vote more,'' says Linda Davidoff, executive director of Human SERVE. ``The real barrier is the registration barrier.''

The use of the state to register voters is common in most Western democracies. In Canada, where 95 percent of eligible voters are registered, government workers canvass house to house to sign up residents.

Various nonpartisan groups favor automatic government registration of voters. Despite opposition from mainly Republican lawmakers, there is growing support for such measures. The US Conference of Mayors recently endorsed the concept of using city officials to register voters.

But in the United States, where only 62 percent of eligible voters are registered, there has been resistance to easy registration. States began adopting registration laws in the 1880s to counter reported vote cheating in cities, where populations were ballooning with immigrants.

But the prospect of easier registration, and potentially an enlarged electorate, has unsettling implications for politicians. Predictably, elected leaders differ on who shall vote and under what conditions.

In Los Angeles, county officials are seeking to overturn a recent court order requiring county workers to solicit voter registration. The order was spurred when various nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit against the county alleging it had discriminated against the poor and minority groups by refusing to help them register.

Superior Court Judge Jack Newman found the county in noncompliance with a state voter registration law and ordered it to actively solicit potential voters through its social service agencies.

The group demonstrated that a largely low-income, Hispanic community east of Los Angeles had a registration rate of 31 percent, while a nearby mostly white, affluent suburb had a rate of 93 percent.

``There were sharp gaps in participation, said Walter Dean Burnham, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the case. ``You find a class gap in participation rates all over.''

In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Richard Thornburgh recently reissued a two-year-old directive banning voter registration in state buildings, claiming that such activity disrupts official business.

Last month, two members of Project Vote! were arrested and charged with defiant trespass after refusing to leave a state office. The charges were dropped last week. A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order barring the state from enforcing the law.

In New York and Ohio, Republican critics have successfully sought to restrict voter registration efforts in state offices.

A story on voter registration that ran Wednesday said Republican efforts in New York and Ohio have successfully sought to restrict voter registration efforts in state offices. These efforts have been unsuccessful.

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