Americans, taking advantage of a simplified voter registration law, are signing up at a record pace this year. A significant percentage of them are snubbing the major parties in favor of third parties or independent status.
In the South, Republicans are making strong gains, contrary to the GOP theory that the Democratic Party would be the beneficiary of the federal “motor voter” law, which allows registration at motor vehicle bureaus, welfare offices and other agencies.
Not since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed obstacles that had kept many blacks from voting, have so many new voters signed up.
At least 637,429 voters in 27 states signed up at motor vehicle departments, public assistance agencies, libraries and military recruiting offices between Jan. 1 and the end of February. The actual number will be much higher because some states reported figures for only one month, some had numbers available from only one or two counties and some had not compiled any figures.
Five states - California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and South Carolina - are fighting the “motor voter” program in court, and several others have not started their programs.
But even without the participation of some of the biggest states, it appears millions of new voters will be eligible to cast ballots in the 1996 presidential election. Demographic information about these potential voters is not available, but most experts forecast a big jump in the number of younger voters, who are the most frequent customers at driver’s license offices, and poorer people, who sign up through public assistance agencies.
Preliminary figures gathered by The Associated Press show the discontent many voters expressed in exit polls last November still continues.
In Delaware, where about 20 percent of voters usually register outside the Democratic and Republican parties, nearly one in every three new voters is snubbing the national parties. In February, for example, 951 new voters registered as Democrats, 946 picked the Republican Party and 939 registered as “other.”
In Kentucky, where people without a party affiliation cannot vote in primary elections, 10,578 of the 36,955 new voters who registered in January and February chose “no party” anyway. Of those who registered at public assistance offices, four of every 10 voters chose not to belong to either major party.
“This is an excellent barometer of anti-party sentiment,” said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.
Many Republicans in Congress opposed the “motor voter” program, claiming Democrats would benefit and states would be forced to pay for yet another program mandated by the federal government. Some have threatened to try to repeal the program.
But interviews with voter registration officials in about a dozen states found few places where Democrats are rolling up big numbers compared with Republicans. Indeed, Democrats may be losing ground because many of the new independent voters are signing up at public assistance offices, traditionally considered Democratic turf.
New voters As of January, 25,360 Washington state residents had registered under the “motor voter” law.