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Making it easier to register to vote

WASHINGTON - In this year of democratic revival around the world, it is possible that the United States will give itself a gift of democracy by opening access to the voting booth to millions more citizens. The House of Representatives last week passed by more than a 2-1 margin a bill to make voter registration far easier than it is today.

If it becomes law, you'd be registered automatically when you obtained or renewed a driver's license. And you could register by mail or at almost any government office where you go to pay a bill or get assistance.

Half the states now have postcard registration, but only 11 have either "motor-voter" or other government agency registration procedures. Where these techniques have been tried, costs have been low and problems few, election officials of both parties say. The House bill would mandate all three in every state and provide $50-million to pay for the start-up expense.

Nancy Neuman, president of the League of Women Voters, which lobbied hard for the measure, said: "It will put the government in the position of helping people get registered, instead of making itself a barrier."

Still, the weight of the evidence is that it's at best a partial remedy to the 30-year trend of declining voter turnout. The reasons for not voting are many, including doubts about the importance of the outcome and disdain for the candidates, the parties and politics.

Curtis Gans, a leading student of voting and non-voting, has noted that in 1988, at least 85-million registered voters did not go to the polls. And when Colorado introduced driver license-registration after the 1984 election, "registration shot up by 13 percentage points but turnout (in 1988) increased by only one-tenth of a percent."

Other states have done better, and Gans' calculation is that the House bill would increase registration by 30-million and voter turnout by 6-million to 8-million.

As he says, "That is not to be sneezed at," but it's not certain the House bill will become law. Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., has sponsored a somewhat similar bill that is on the Senate calendar.

But the Senate bill lacks the mandatory, uniform provisions for updating and cleansing the voting lists that were added to the House measure in order to attract Republican support.

More than one-third of the House Republicans voted for the House bill, despite charges from Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., that it would allow fraudulent voting, and a memo from the White House raising concerns about both costs and fraud.

Ford's bill, by contrast, has no Republican co-sponsors and it has drawn strong opposition from Senate GOP leaders. Administration sources say that the Senate bill is more open to abuse than the House version, but hint that either one might draw a veto.

The Washington Post-ABC News Poll indicates that 77 percent of self-identified Democrats in the country are registered to vote, while only 71 percent of the Republicans and 66 percent of the Independents say they are registered. In 1988, George Bush got virtually all the Republicans and two-thirds of the Independents, so Post polling director Richard Morin concludes that Bush would have added at least a point or two to his margin of victory had everyone over 18 voted.

That would seem to make a presidential veto self-defeating, but Republicans clearly are ambivalent about expanding the electorate. In the House, the split was on generational, not ideological, lines, with Old Guard figures like Michel, 67, and Rep. William S. Broomfield, R-Mich., 68, voting no, and younger activists, like Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., 46, and Rep. John Hiler, R-Ind., 37, voting yes.

Those younger Republicans, impatient with their party's permanent minority status, are ready to take their chances in a bigger electoral ballpark. It will be fascinating to see if George Bush is equally bold.

Washington Post Writers Group