WASHINGTON — From MTV's Rock the Vote to appeals over the Internet to state motor-vehicle offices and traditional outreach campaigns, the United States is witnessing the most extensive voter-registration efforts ever mounted for a national election.
As a result, the number of people signing up to cast ballots in the presidential and congressional contests is expected to reach an all-time high, with some estimates projecting as many as 20 million new voters over 1992.
"We think this will be the biggest registration in American history," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters.
Yet the key question will go unanswered until the polls close Nov. 5: Will the increase in registration mean higher turnout - and which party, if any, would benefit?
At this stage, political analysts are divided in their forecasts, although recent history appears to favor the skeptics. In 1992, there were some 189 million Americans of voting age. Even though 133.8 million registered, only 55.2 percent of them cast ballots.
Election turnout is regarded as an important measure of the general health of the country's political system. Analysts cite low attendance in recent years as a key indicator of widespread alienation and disenchantment within the electorate.
Some also believe voter turnout can help one party more than another at the polls. High turnout often means significant attendance in urban areas, and some analysts say that favors Democrats. Republicans are generally considered the most consistent voters, so low turnouts are regarded as helping the GOP.
With disenchantment with the political system running high, especially among the young and those in lower economic strata, skeptics say the race between President Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole, will see no appreciable increase in turnout.
"At this point, I would think the turnout will be about the same as it was in 1992," says Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "That's particularly true because people on the bottom end of the income scale have increasingly eschewed the ballot."
Furthermore, Mr. Gans contends that "at least until now, interest in the election is down." A recent poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the Study of the People and the Press bolsters his argument. It found that only 47 percent of voters questioned in June had given a lot of thought to the election. That compares with 55 percent in June 1992. In addition, 69 percent of respondents said they were absolutely committed to casting ballots compared with 75 percent in June 1992.
"With the exception of the debate on the economic program, you will have an election driven by doubts about character on one side and fears of extremism on the other. This makes for an ugly campaign," Gans says.
Larry Hugick, a pollster with Princeton Research Associates in New Jersey, raises yet another consideration: "New voters are notorious for staying at home. It's like young people who don't read newspapers. Voting is a question of forming a new habit."
But activists involved in voter mobilization dispute such assertions, saying they are confident of a major increase in turnout. Where they used to concentrate exclusively on registration, advocacy groups are now focusing on getting people to actually go to the polls.
"We have shifted our emphasis," says Ms. Cain. "We are still registering voters, but we have shifted to a 'get-out-the-vote" activity" replete with radio and TV ads and billboard messages.
What has allowed the League of Women Voters and other groups to realign their focus is the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. It requires all state motor-vehicle agencies to provide voter applications to people seeking licenses and registrations. States must also offer applications at social-service agencies, military-recruitment offices, public schools, and libraries.
The act went into effect in January 1995 and has already had a profound impact, according to a report by Human Serve, a New York-based voter-advocacy group. It says more than 11 million Americans signed up to vote or updated their voting addresses in 40 states during the first year of the NVRA. That represented "the largest increase in voter registration since the practice of registration was established in the closing decades of the 19th century," the report says. It forecasts an increase in turnout as a percentage of the voting-age population because "historically, in presidential elections people who are registered do vote."
Organizers are also confident that the new "get-out-the-vote" drives will boost turnout because their polling shows people are far more likely to participate if they have been contacted directly.
"You have to touch people where they are, pound the pavement and shake people's hands," says Leslie Watson Davis, national coordinator of the Citizenship Education Fund, a voter registration and education group founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In the past, advocacy groups based their appeals on the idea that the ballot was the best way for Americans to influence public policy. "Nobody believes that anymore," Cain says.
Now they are making their messages more personal, stressing to people that their jobs, schools, health care, and families will be affected by the outcome of the election. "Once we get people on the voter rolls, we have to get them to understand the importance of exercising their vote," Ms. Watson-Davis says.