In what political experts say is the greatest expansion of voter rolls in the nation’s history, more than 5 million Americans have registered to vote in the eight months since the National Voter Registration Act was enacted.
Several states report that the act - popularly known as the “Motor Voter Law” because it permits people to register while obtaining a driving permit - has generated threefold increases, and greater, in the pace of registrations compared with earlier years.
“There’s never been a massive registration like this in such a brief period in all of the country’s political history,” said Lloyd Leonard, an elections specialist for the League of Women Voters.
“When women and 18-year-olds got the vote,” he said, “they started off registering much more slowly. But back then, for the most part, they couldn’t register when getting a driving permit.”
Estimates are that by the turn of the century, if the surge generated by the new law continues, at least four of every five adult Americans will be registered to vote, compared with about three of every five now.
Whether increased registration will improve voter turnout on election days is but a guess at this point. In recent years, turnout has hovered around 50 percent of the eligible adult population, one of the lowest participation figures of any major democracy.
As for the ideological background of the new voters, only about half the states register by party and none of those that do has yet produced a breakdown.
However, early indications are that while Democrats and Republicans have benefited from the new law, the biggest surge in registrations appears to have been toward the independent column. That would tend to confirm recent election turnouts, which have also shown a rise in independent voting.
When the proposal was making its way through Congress, some opponents, mainly Republicans, feared that it would result in major Democratic gains because it would encourage registration of the poor and disadvantaged, who have tended to vote for Democrats for the past 50 years.
“There’s no real evidence of that so far,” Leonard said. “The most striking thing we’re getting is just the raw number increases overall, regardless of party.”
Georgia registered 303,000 new voters between January and June of this year, compared with only 85,000 registrations for all of 1994. In Iowa, there were 22,500 registrations in the first quarter of this year, compared with 8,700 registrations for all of 1994.
In Alabama, almost 43,000 people registered during the first quarter of 1995, compared with only 23,000 registrations for that same period in 1994. Kentucky had 77,000 registrations in the first quarter of 1995 but only 23,000 new enrollees in all of 1994.
Most new voters signed up while obtaining or renewing driving permits. But large numbers also took advantage of provisions mandating that welfare agencies and other government offices also offer registration.
At the start of 1995, elections experts calculated, there were about 190 million citizens of voting age but only about 120 million were registered. Now, the experts say, in just the past six months the registration figure has jumped to about 125 million, or almost 66 percent of all eligible citizens.
Officials of the National Motor Voter Coalition, a group of civic organizations that helped push the law through Congress, predict that by the turn of the century at least 40 million new registrations will take place under the law.
As the law made its way through Congress, opponents argued that it would result in a surge in fraudulent enrollments. They also contended that it would be expensive to implement.
So far, no evidence exists that the voting act has increased voting fraud, federal officials say. But no one knows for sure.
Before the new law was passed, voter registration in many states typically took place at scattered registrar offices, sometimes at odd hours. Only a few states permitted registration at various government offices, and a handful permitted enrollment by mail.
Year in and year out, less than 63 percent of the voting-age population was registered to vote, with the young and the poor notably lagging, particularly in parts of the South.
“It’s hard to think of another law that has yielded so much for so little,” Attorney General Janet Reno said recently after seeing the initial registration figures. “The law truly has strengthened our democratic process. It is one-stop shopping, government made easy.”