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California and the West

Election Day Voter Registration Is Urged

Politics: Supporters say it would boost low turnout levels, but critics say it would encourage fraud.


SACRAMENTO — Hoping to lure more people to the polls at a time when voter turnout has reached a near-record low, Democrats want to dramatically alter California's election day landscape by allowing citizens to register just before casting a ballot.

If the proposal is approved by the Legislature and endorsed by Gov. Gray Davis, California would join six states that permit voter registration at the last possible moment.

Supporters predict that the move, which would abolish rules requiring Californians to register a month before election day, would lead to a surge in turnout. They say many people don't pay close attention to campaigns until the home stretch, and then are barred from casting ballots if they are not registered, or have moved and failed to re-register.

"Just when the issues come into focus for people, the registrar closes up shop," says Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who has proposed one of two bills that would authorize the change. "You can buy stocks and get a home mortgage over the Internet, but you can't register on election day? It's ridiculous."

Scholars who study voter behavior say that election day registration boosts turnout by as much as 8%.

But California's chief elections officer says allowing people to register at the 11th hour could open the door to fraud. Secretary of State Bill Jones worries that officials would be unable to detect "double voting" by cheaters who might cast ballots at more than one location.

The governor is not entirely keen on the idea, either. His spokesman, Michael Bustamante, could not provide details of the governor's position but said Davis is not yet convinced there's a need for the change.

Such lukewarm reactions have not deterred Hertzberg and state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), author of the other election day registration bill. They insist that California's low turnout underscores the need to make voting as convenient as possible.

In last November's election, 41% of eligible Californians voted--a near-record low and a 6% drop from the 1994 gubernatorial election. Experts say that was particularly troubling because the state was selecting a new governor and deciding a host of controversial ballot measures.

Research shows that election day registration encourages more people to sign up and vote--mostly because it makes participating more convenient, says Ray Wolfinger, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.

Republicans have long suspected that same-day registration benefits Democrats, but Wolfinger, author of "Who Votes," says his research does not support that conclusion.

He says the change would mostly benefit two bipartisan groups--young people, who tend to be less familiar with electoral rules, and those who move a lot. The latter group is of no small consequence; studies show one-third of the national population has not lived in the same place for two years.

"Remember the last time you moved and had a list of things to do? Registering to vote was probably not at the top of the list," Wolfinger says.

Hertzberg notes that the states permitting election day registration tend to lead the nation in turnout. Letting voters sign up on the spot is partly responsible, but other factors--such as a highly educated population--are at play in those states as well, experts say.

One of those states--Minnesota--recently demonstrated that a bonanza of same-day registrants can help swing elections. Analysts say Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura--the former pro wrestler--won his race last year with the help of those who became excited by his candidacy and registered on election day. That group represented 16% of the state's turnout.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant, says the Ventura episode illustrates that "when you permit same-day registration, the potential for wild card outcomes is definitely there."

Talk of changing to such a system makes Sragow and other campaign professionals nervous. Under current rules, consultants have a firm grasp on the voter universe. They know how many people are registered, their chosen party and their past voting habits--and they target them accordingly.

Allowing people to wait until election day to register "adds a potentially huge unknown factor," Sragow says. "The notion that your opponent might go out and encourage a lot of people to show up and register and vote on election day is enough to send any consultant's mind spinning."

Ray McNally, a GOP consultant, agrees, and adds that allowing citizens to register on election day could "dumb down" the electorate.

"If they're registering at the last minute, are these voters who have read the ballot pamphlet, gone to

forums, taken time to learn the issues?" McNally says. "And is it really asking too much to require that we get off our duffs and register a few weeks before we vote?"

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