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Energized by presidential race, Americans flood voter registration offices


HOUSTON -- Throughout the land, from small country burg to the big cities, many Americans are doing something they have never done before: registering to vote.

When registrars arrived at their courthouse office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at 8 a.m. Friday -- the registration deadline -- they found about 100 people standing in line.

There also was a crowd in Boise, Idaho, where county elections supervisor Sandy Coppes could barely make her way through the lobby.

"A lot of these people are voting for the first time," Ms. Coppes said. "And they tell me they can't wait to vote."

In Texas, the number of voters has increased to 8.4 million, up 200,000 over four years ago. Los Angeles ran out of absentee ballots and had to print more. Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago have all set registration records.

A Kerrville, Texas, heart attack victim refused to be hospitalized until the ambulance driver took him by the town auditorium to fill out an early ballot. Several elderly San Antonio residents who had never voted in their lives called a registration drive committee to ask how much the long defunct poll tax would be so they could start saving the money.

Registration efforts are being pushed by sources from MTV to the Body Shop chain of lotion and hair care stores.

Even against formidable prime-time competition, television ratings have been high for not only the presidential debates but also for the "infomercials" of independent candidate Ross Perot. More than 90 million people watched the Monday debate involving President Bush, Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot. Only 58 million people watched Thursday's World Series game.

The American public, energized by the presidential race and sensing its ability to make a difference, is about to reverse a 30-year trend. Barring any major changes in the races, more Americans will vote in 1992 than in 1988, halting for at least the moment an erosion in voter participation that has been going on since Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Yet while voters are registering in record numbers, millions of people also have been dropping out of the American political system over the last three decades, with the 1988 race between George Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis marking perhaps the lowest point in the country's system of participatory democracy. Those who track the electorate are not optimistic that this year's expected surge of voter participation will be anything more than a blip on the screen.

"I don't think they are coming back permanently," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "They are just angry, and the recession has them scared. This is nothing but a spike upward."

Perhaps so, but there is an air throughout the nation that voters are about to be more a part of the process. Some were brought back into the system by the maverick campaign of Mr. Perot, while others have been alarmed by the fiscal state of the nation.

"People don't consider politics important until it hits home, and this year it did," said Denver, Colo., secretary Myra Van Norman during a lunch break in a downtown park.

Walter D. Burnham, a University of Texas at Austin expert on the electorate, said that a number of complicated factors decide what the voter turnout will be for any given election.

They include "a sense that the election presents clear alternatives, a sense of crisis with some possibility of resolution, some highly salient focus issues" all of which he said could be found in this year's election.

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