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Wave of Potential New Voters Has Yet to Materialize

GOP is counting on a surge in registrations in California, where 44% are Democrats and 35% are Republicans; 16% decline to identify party.

September 14, 2003|James Rainey and Allison Hoffman | Times Staff Writers

Republicans and independents are adding more new voters than Democrats heading into the Oct. 7 recall election, but with nine days left to register, a wave of potential new voters envisioned by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington and some other candidates has not materialized, according to county election officials.

Republicans claim that, in the four months ended Aug. 31, they added about 80,000 new potential voters, compared with 20,000 newly registered Democrats, in a state with a voting population of more than 15 million and a significant Democratic edge.

Election officials in several counties have reported a substantial increase in Republicans among registrants but could not confirm the GOP figure because there has been no statewide tally. Democrats did not supply their own figures, but said they mistrusted the GOP totals.

The Times Poll, meanwhile, found that just 2% of those considered likely to vote Oct. 7 will be casting ballots for the first time. That's a smaller proportion of new voters than the 7% the poll measured about this many weeks in advance of last year's regular gubernatorial election -- and far from the deluge of new voters some had predicted. With the Sept. 22 voter registration deadline approaching and just 24 days remaining until the election, Republican leaders insisted that the registration figures represented an indication of things to come.

"It shows there is an excitement out there, and we are going to have a high turnout for Republicans and independents to make a protest vote," said Bernd Schwieren, director of the Office of Strategic Information Services for the state Assembly Republican Caucus.

Bob Mulholland, director of the state Democratic Party, said Republicans routinely claim they are gaining strength.

"Every election cycle, the Republicans put this out. They say they are doing really well," he said. "And at the end of the day, there will be 1.2 million to 1.4 million more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote."

The secretary of state reported Aug. 8, which was the last official reporting date, that there were nearly 15 million registered voters in California. Of those, about 6.6 million (44%) were Democrats, 5.3 million (35%) were Republicans, and 2.3 million (16%) declined to state a party affiliation.

Political professionals have long held mixed opinions about efforts to engage new voters. Some believe precious time and money are better spent rallying those who vote habitually.

California Democrats and union leaders say they are focusing more of their anti-recall resources on getting their core supporters to vote.

But others say that if the question of recalling Gov. Gray Davis remains close and the battle to replace him tight, new voters could help win the day.

The Times' poll released Thursday found likely voters barely favoring the recall, 50% to 47%. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was ahead in the race to replace Davis, with 30% of the vote, while Schwarzenegger drew the backing of 25% of likely voters. Both gaps were within the poll's margin of sampling error.

"Getting new voters on the rolls is very important and we have done quite a bit in that regard," said Martin R. Wilson, Schwarzenegger's campaign director. "That's a big part of [Schwarzenegger's] message, both in terms of pushing registration for the next week or so and then pushing [voter] participation."

In several counties where Democrats are in the minority, disproportionately few new registrants are signing up as Democrats, election officials said.

Of the 13,800 new registrants in Orange County since Aug. 8, when counties last reported to the secretary of state, 46% were Republicans, 30% were independents and 12% were Democrats, according to the county registrar of voters. Overall, Democrats make up about 32% of Orange County's 1.3 million voters.

In the month ended Sept. 5 in Ventura County, 47% of the 3,432 new registrants were Republicans, 30% were independents or from small parties and 23% were Democrats, who make up about 39% of the county's nearly 400,000 voters.

Of the 4,380 new voters in Fresno County since August, 58% are Republicans, 23% independents or minor party members and just 19% Democrats, even though Democrats compose 41% of 350,000 total voters.

Riverside County has 643,000 voters, about 35% of them Democrats. But in the week ended Thursday, Democrats composed about 21% of 6,738 new registrants, officials said.

In San Bernardino County, with 630,000 registered voters, Democratic registration has actually dropped by 3,000 since October 2002 to 249,000, records show.

In Los Angeles County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 2 to 1 overall among 4 million voters, Democratic registrants outpaced Republicans in the month ended Sept. 5 by 13,000 to 10,000.

Schwarzenegger and Huffington have made voter registration pitches a routine part of their campaign stump speeches.

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