The brick and mortar of US democracy - the number of registered voters - has expanded more in the past two years than at any time in history.
At the time of the 1994 midterm elections, there were 118 million registered voters in the nation. Since then, more than 22 million Americans have registered or re-registered to vote under the National Voter Registration Act, known as the "motor voter" law. That figure exceeds the total number of registered voters in California and New York, the states with the largest electorates. About half of motor voter registrations are new to the voter rolls, says the League of Women Voters and other registration advocates.
While political analysts don't know how many of these new voters will go to the polls or how they will vote there, the potential surge in voting activity could reshape and significantly broaden the popular base for US government. Though some politicians have resisted the law and critics have noted politicians' tendency to apply it selectively, the motor voter law is involving millions of formerly disenfranchised Americans, compelling politicians to pay at least some heed to their opinions and needs.
The law has required states since January 1995 to offer applications for voter registration in motor vehicle departments and social service agencies, including public aid offices, libraries, schools, and military recruitment offices. They must also implement a registration program by mail.
Although the law enjoyed bipartisan support when it passed in 1993, elected officials of every political stripe have vigorously opposed it at the state and national levels. They say it opens the way for fraud, is too costly, and impinges on state rights. Many states have unsuccessfully battled the law in court.
Despite that opposition, the motor voter law will continue to enlarge voter rolls, say its supporters. According to the League of Women Voters, by 1999 the law will give an estimated 95 percent of the eligible electorate the chance to register.
Champions of the law say some elected officials oppose the measure because it generally is more difficult to shape the outcome of elections involving a bigger, more socially complex body of voters. "We have seen from incumbents very, very little support for expanding the voter base regardless of their party affiliation," says Madeline Talbott, director of Chicago's Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
Eight states controlled by Republican governors have posed especially stiff resistance to the motor voter law, says Richard Cloward, executive director of Human SERVE, a New York-based voter registration organization. (The states are California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.) Between January 1995 and June of this year, recalcitrant states have inhibited registration by an estimated 7 million voters, Human SERVE says.
Superficially, the law appears menacing to the Republican Party because it will broaden registration among racial, ethnic, and income groups that tend not to vote for the party. But some studies suggest that it gives no party a clear edge. Although the Democrats might gain adherents at public aid offices, the Republican Party does well among the more numerous (and prosperous) registrants at motor vehicle departments.
"In states that have implemented motor voter aggressively, you have a tremendous increase in registration across the board for both parties and for independents," says Ms. Talbott at ACORN.
After repeated setbacks in court, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar on Oct. 2 announced he would give up a protracted fight against the law. He and other elected officials had decried the cost, raised the fear of fraud, and asserted that the law represented an unfunded federal mandate by Congress. After receiving a court order to implement the law, Illinois complied by enabling registrants to cast a ballot only for federal elections. Voters had to register a second time for state and local elections. Mississippi has also advanced a two-tiered system.
"We clearly have a lot fewer registered voters to motor voter in Illinois than we would have had the state not opposed the measure," says David Orr, county clerk for Cook County, which encompasses Chicago. In his Oct. 2 statement, Edgar said registered voters will hereafter be able to vote at the local, state, and federal level.
Despite the decision to restore unified voter registration, critics say state officials can still hobble motor voter by soft-pedaling its implementation. Indeed, Illinois has promoted registration more in motor vehicle bureaus than in public aid offices, which ostensibly offer more fertile ground for the Democratic Party. It declines to release data on the number of voter registrations at welfare offices until March 1997, when it must report such figures to the federal government.
"The state has clearly made registration at public aid offices the lowest priority" in the motor voter program, says Mr. Orr, a Democrat. The governor's office disagrees. "We don't have a problem with making it easier to register if safeguards against voter fraud are maintained," says Michael Lawrence, spokesman for Edgar.