Voter Registration Hits High, but Will People Cast Ballots?

Article excerpt

From MTV's Rock the Vote to appeals over the Internet to state motor-vehicle offices and traditional outreach campaigns, the United States is witnessing the most extensive voter-registration efforts ever mounted for a national election.

As a result, the number of people signing up to cast ballots in the presidential and congressional contests is expected to reach an all-time high, with some estimates projecting as many as 20 million new voters over 1992.

"We think this will be the biggest registration in American history," says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters.

Yet the key question will go unanswered until the polls close Nov. 5: Will the increase in registration mean higher turnout - and which party, if any, would benefit?

At this stage, political analysts are divided in their forecasts, although recent history appears to favor the skeptics. In 1992, there were some 189 million Americans of voting age. Even though 133.8 million registered, only 55.2 percent of them cast ballots.

Election turnout is regarded as an important measure of the general health of the country's political system. Analysts cite low attendance in recent years as a key indicator of widespread alienation and disenchantment within the electorate.

Some also believe voter turnout can help one party more than another at the polls. High turnout often means significant attendance in urban areas, and some analysts say that favors Democrats. Republicans are generally considered the most consistent voters, so low turnouts are regarded as helping the GOP.

With disenchantment with the political system running high, especially among the young and those in lower economic strata, skeptics say the race between President Clinton and Republican nominee Bob Dole, will see no appreciable increase in turnout.

"At this point, I would think the turnout will be about the same as it was in 1992," says Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "That's particularly true because people on the bottom end of the income scale have increasingly eschewed the ballot."

Furthermore, Mr. Gans contends that "at least until now, interest in the election is down." A recent poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the Study of the People and the Press bolsters his argument. It found that only 47 percent of voters questioned in June had given a lot of thought to the election. That compares with 55 percent in June 1992. In addition, 69 percent of respondents said they were absolutely committed to casting ballots compared with 75 percent in June 1992.

"With the exception of the debate on the economic program, you will have an election driven by doubts about character on one side and fears of extremism on the other. …