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'Motor Voter' Registrants Near 100,000 : Government: State official is encouraged by results from first 45 days of new law. But critic says number is low.


SACRAMENTO — Nearly 100,000 Californians took advantage of a new law allowing voter registration at state driver's license offices in the first 45 days after the law took effect, state officials said Wednesday.

Implementation of the controversial "motor voter" law in California was delayed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who sued last winter to block it. Two federal courts ruled against him and the law went into effect June 19.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, said the initial registration results gave him encouragement that he would meet a self-imposed goal of ultimately signing up every eligible Californian to vote. Currently, there are 14 million registered voters out of an estimated 18.9 million eligible people in the state.

At a news conference, Jones said about 1.3 million people got driver's licenses or identification cards from the state Department of Motor Vehicles during the first 45 days the law was in effect. Of those, he said, 98,655 registered to vote for the first time or re-registered.

However, Jones said a breakdown of their party affiliations will not be made until October, when local election officials must report updated tallies to him. He also said it is not known how many registrants were new voters and how many were merely re-registering.

In Los Angeles County, 13,878 people registered or re-registered during the six-week period, Jones' office said. In Orange County, the total was 5,166.

But attorney Mei Lin Kwan-Gett of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who fought Wilson in court over implementation of the law, said the California figures seem to be very low compared to those of other states.

"This raises questions about the accuracy of the numbers or the accuracy of the implementation," she said.

The controversial "motor voter" law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 was widely predicted to help Democrats by making it easier for minorities and low-income citizens to register to vote when they did business at motor vehicle, welfare and other government offices.

Last winter, Wilson sued to declare the law unconstitutional because it imposed what he said was $18 million in new costs on California without providing funds to pay for them. He was successfully opposed in court by civil rights organizations.

Although Jones said he supports making it easier to register voters, he called on Congress to provide the money needed to make the law fully operational, including the potentially expensive task of clearing "deadwood," such as the names of the deceased, from voter rolls.

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