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Registrations to Vote Surge at Record Rate

More than 1.8 million have been added to the state rolls this year, pushing the total close to 16 million. Many are under 29 years old.

November 01, 2004|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

Californians registered to vote in record numbers this election year, despite the lack of suspense over who will win the state's 55 electoral votes Tuesday.

Though the national parties and interest groups focused their voter drives elsewhere, registrations in the heavily Democratic state surged anyway, spurred by Internet-based campaigns and interest in the presidential race and an array of state propositions.

More than 1.8 million Californians registered in the first eight months of 2004, nearly twice the number from the same period in 2000, a Times analysis of registration data collected by the secretary of state shows.

"My guess is this year it'll be close to 16 million," said Bob Mulholland, political director of the California Democratic Party. Total registrations peaked at 15.7 million during the last presidential campaign.

Mirroring a national trend, the new registrations were weighted toward the young, and an increasing number of those who signed up this year declined to state a party affiliation.

Nearly 23% of this year's registrants gave no party designation, up 5 percentage points from 2000.

Though it was impossible to determine from state records how many of the registrations represented first-time voters, more than 36% were under 29 years old -- a third higher than four years ago.

The newly released figures include registrations only through August, the last time before the election that all counties were required to forward their voter rolls to Sacramento. Though the deadline for new voters to qualify for the national election was Oct. 18, not all counties have finalized their counts.

Last week, overwhelmed officials in Los Angeles County had logged an additional 200,000 registrations since Sept. 3, and still were not finished processing all the forms turned in before the deadline.

The pull of the presidential contest has helped the state's Democratic Party regain some ground lost to Republican registrations during last year's recall election in which Arnold Schwarzenegger unseated the widely unpopular Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Two months before Tuesday's election, Republicans made up 35% of the electorate -- almost exactly the same level as in 2000. Democrats were at 42% and those declining to state, 17%.

Karen Hanretty, communications director for the state Republican Party, said the party has conducted an aggressive registration drive since the summer of 2003, when the recall campaign was in full swing.

"We started to see registrations increase after Gov. Davis signed the car tax," she said. "During the recall, we continued to gain momentum. Of course, in a presidential year, citizens are more tuned to politics."

That momentum has subsided this year, however.

Republicans accounted for only 28% of all registrations in the first months of 2004, compared with 42% for Democrats.

Mulholland, the Democratic political director, said the increasing reluctance to state a party follows national cultural trends.

"The natural trend in America is less identity with organizations, and political parties are among them," he said. "Youth in general did not grow up with a political party atmosphere."

Many young Californians have been drawn into the electoral process by national campaigns targeting their age group.

MTV's Rock the Vote campaign pulled in nearly 150,000 online registrations in the state -- about 10% of its national total, said spokesman Jay Strell.

The California Public Interest Research Group and a coalition of student organizations registered more than 25,000 people this fall, mainly on college campuses, said Ivan Frishberg of the New Voters Project run by CalPIRG's national organization.

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