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Participation Is the Goal of Extended Voter Registration

October 22, 2000|ROBERT M. HERTZBERG | Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) is speaker of the California state Assembly

If you woke up today and finally decided it was time to get involved in the political process, you are in for a rude awakening. Because if you want to register to vote in the November election, the answer you'll get is this: "Sorry, too late."

The deadline to register to vote in California passed Oct. 10. The procedures in place close registration 29 days before an election. But because of a bill I authored and that Gov. Gray Davis signed into law, that is about to change.

From now on, the registration deadline in California will be 15 days before an election.

Moving the deadline back two weeks may not seem like much at first. But it can make a big difference, and it might just have a real impact on a big problem.

Today, California, a state that leads the nation is so many respects, is near the bottom of the pack when it comes to political participation.

We're 43rd in the nation in the percentage of Californians registered to vote and rank 45th in turnout at the voting booth.

And things are not getting any better. In the 1998 elections, a smaller percentage of Californians voted than in more than a century.

This is unfortunate and wrong but may not be surprising if we consider the number of hoops Californians have to jump through to get to the polls. One of those is the fact that anyone who decides to register to vote in the last month of the campaign season is shut out of the process.

What makes this so silly is that it is in the last month of a campaign that people are most likely to decide to vote.

Under the old rules, Californians who decided to register after tuning in to the second or third presidential debates were out of luck and out of the process.

The last month is when their neighbors knock on their doors and ask them to get involved, when they meet the candidates shaking hands in front of supermarkets, when advertisements start blanketing the airwaves, when television news reports follow the campaign's every turn and when their mailboxes fill up with information on the candidates and their positions.

The last month is when we get excited, inspired, motivated and, yes, even frustrated.

But the registration deadline was more than four weeks before Election Day.

The old registration deadline has served to lock out all but the more committed partisans and dedicated voters. The real tragedy is that the voters who are disenfranchised are those we most want participating in the democratic process: the people whose exposure to a candidate or issue has driven them to become passionate and committed.

The old system was convenient only for the political pros who want to know ahead of time which voters are going to show up in November. It is high time we had a voting system that is convenient for voters. In fact, it is past time.

For 25 years, the registration deadline remained in place while technology changed the way we lived and worked. Today we have the ability to extend the registration period without risking election fraud.

Throughout America's history, we have struggled to bring more and more people into the democratic process. This new 15-day registration law is a small part of that proud tradition. Now it will be up to Californians to do their part and exercise their franchise.

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