MILLIONS of people are registering to vote for the first time across the country as a result of a ''motor-voter'' law -- a move with important implications for future elections.
But the political leanings of the newly signed up are not necessarily what people expected. While many thought Democrats would gain the most from the expanding registration rolls, a significant number of the new voters are independents -- a telling statement of voter disillusionment with both traditional parties.
''I think what it will do is get the parties out there trying to speak to the interests of people in a way that they haven't before,'' says Jo-Anne Chasnow, associate director of Human SERVE, a New York-based group that follows voter trends.
The success of the new registration method has been tremendous. ''In the first 90 days of this year we have registered 155,000 new voters,'' says Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland. That figure, he says, compares with 85,000 during all of last year and about 200,000 in 1992, a presidential election year.
Georgia is not the only state to increase its ranks of registered voters since the National Voter Registration Act took effect on Jan. 1. In a recent survey conducted by a coalition of groups that tracks voters, 26 states that have compiled numbers saw registration rates in the month of January increase by three to 13 times that of previous years.
Based on this preliminary data, as many as 20 million of the 70 million voting-age Americans who are not registered will be signed up by November 1996, predicts Richard Cloward, executive director of Human SERVE, one of the organizations that coordinated the survey.
The motor-voter law, which Congress passed in 1993, requires states to simplify the registration process by allowing people to register through driver's license bureaus, public assistance and disability agencies, and by mail. Although Jan. 1 was the deadline for states to implement the law, six states -- California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, and Louisiana -- have resisted. Suits have been filed against those states, and in three cases, California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, judges have ordered the states to comply. The other cases have not yet been decided.
The law's biggest opponents have been Republican governors and members of Congress, who say states will be forced to pay for yet another unfunded federal mandate. They also claim it could provoke voter fraud and that Democrats will benefit because many of the new voters will come from the ranks of the poor and minority groups -- people who tend to vote Democratic.
But a snapshot of new registered voters since the law took effect indicates that Republican ranks aren't slipping that much -- and, in fact, are gaining in the South. Democratic rolls, meanwhile, aren't expanding. In several of the states that do ask voters to choose a party, many chose an independent status.
In Kentucky, 10,578 of the 36,955 voters who registered in January and February chose no party affiliation, according to George Russell, executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections. ''I am surprised that that many people registered as no party,'' Mr. Russell says.
He offers two explanations for the trend: Many of the people registered at public-assistance agencies and ''have never been involved before and probably don't understand the political parties.'' In addition, he believes the decision to snub the national parties is part of a national trend. Independents did make big gains in several other states.
Still, even though voter coalition groups forecast large increases in registered voters, one big question remains: Will they show up at the polls when elections come around?
Although the percentage of the voting-age population that is registered to vote is low -- about 54 percent in the 1992 election -- a consistent 85 to 90 percent of those voters cast a ballot in election years, according to the US Census Bureau. Voter groups argue that if 20 million new voters are registered by November 1996, 90 percent of those, or even a conservative 70 percent, is a significant number that could make or break an election.
But Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University here, believes the projection of 20 million additional voters is exaggerated. ''I think you're talking about a marginal increase in voter turnout,'' he says. ''You have to have a much more drastic change in the system,'' such as automatic voter registration, a system used in many other countries, in order to make a difference.