HDMore Americans Poised to Cast Ballots This Year

But despite surge in voter interest, this year's aggregate increase has reached just 1 percent. VOTER REGISTRATION

IN Orange County, Fla., more than 390 people over the age of 90 registered to vote this year: "Absolutely phenomenal," says a state election official.

In Richmond, Va., first-time voters poured in to register: middle-aged people, women under 40, college students. Statewide, registration rose sharply, with 100,000 more new registrants this year than in 1988.

In Orlando, Fla., 22,000 people showed up to register the day before the books closed. "We were so overwhelmed with the lines of people, we looked like Disney World here!" exclaims Margaret Brackney, a spokeswoman for the county elections supervisor.

Demand for absentee ballots was at record levels in some places. Television ratings have demonstrated keen voter interest this year: Record numbers of Americans tuned in to the presidential debates.

Independent candidate Ross Perot's "infomercials" pulled in higher ratings than some entertainment programming. Further, polls indicate much higher voter interest in this election than in the 1988 elections - 88 percent this year compared with 74 percent in 1988, according to a recent USA Today/CNN Gallup poll.

This was supposed to be the year voter turnout could drop below 50 percent for the first time since the Great Depression. The underlying factors that have put the United States at 19th in a ranking of 20 Western democracies for voter turnout remain, say observers of the American electorate.

But, this year, extraordinary circumstances have jolted many voters out of their indifference: the recession, the Perot candidacy, the fierce anti-incumbent mood at all levels of government.

"The League of Women voters should be grateful to Perot," says Del Ali, vice president of Political Media Research. "In terms of increasing registration, he has been terrific for the process. He put the focus on issues, and he made people care about this election."

In addition, local issues ranging from selection of school boards in Virginia to a referendum on homosexuality in Oregon are spurring voter interest.

But if the root causes of low voter turnout are not addressed in coming years, today's relatively high-interest vote - with a bump upward in turnout expected - could prove to be an aberration, says Ruy Teixeira, author of "The Disappearing American Voter."

"The American people have an underlying disaffection with the system that makes them feel the government does not care about ordinary citizens' concerns," he says.

Dick Molpus, Mississippi's secretary of state, echoed this view last week on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." He said, "Americans feel frustrated with political-action committees, lobbyists, special interests, and I think the signal that's coming to all of us as election officials is they want some change."

Though voter interest in this election has been higher than usual, registration has not reached record levels nationwide. A report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE), based on the registration figures of 29 states and the District of Columbia, shows an aggregate increase in the registration rate of only 1 percent.

And, the CSAE report points out, the final nationwide rate will likely be more than 1 percentage point lower than in 1984, when Republicans and Democrats spent $25 million on voter-registration drives.

Still, higher turnout is expected - probably somewhere between 51 percent and 55 percent, says CSAE director Curtis Gans.

But, regardless of official registration totals, this has been a year like no other in recent memory for election officials. They have seen the anger in voters' eyes and heard the personal stories that have motivated many to step forward.

"People are discouraged about the economy," says Monica Horan, general registrar of Fairfax County, Va. "More people say we are going to hell in a handbasket, and somebody has to do something about jobs. We especially hear that from young people. Young people ask, `Why did I go to school all this time, when I can't even get a job!' "

Eighteen- to 24-year-olds, notorious for low participation, have been a particular focus of voter-registration drives launched by MTV, an environmentalist group called Greenvote (107,000 young "eco-voters" registered, it says); the military, and even the Body Shop, a chain of hair and skin-products stores (50,000 registered).

The Pentagon is pushing for 100 percent registration among its ranks, which include many young people. The National Voter Registration Drive of the League of Women Voters, involving 80 co-sponsoring groups, targeted a range of demographic groups, including minorities and youth. Final tallies aren't complete, but the League's registration project with Walmart stores alone netted 135,000 new voters.

Becky Cain, chairwoman of the League's Voter Education Fund, says reforms simplifying voter registration, such as "motor voter" and mail-in registration, have contributed to the overall rise in registration.

Mr. Gans of CSAE notes that many of the states with increased registration rates also have "motor voter" registration, in which a person applying for or renewing a driver's license may register to vote at the same time.

Overall, Ruy Teixeira estimates that simplified voter registration nationwide could boost the voter rolls by 8 percent, or 15 million people. But if voters are not motivated to register because they feel disconnected from politics, no amount of simplification will inspire vastly greater numbers to go press the lever.

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