But now, at least in Maryland, the GOP seems to be the beneficiary of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- the so-called "motor voter" law.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the number of new registrations since Jan. 1 -- the day the law went into effect -- the GOP is making impressive gains in corralling new voters in much of Maryland. And the number of voters who register as independents also has jumped, an analysis of state election board data by The Sun shows.
Democrats still hold a 2-to-1 advantage over the GOP in total number registered, but new registrations are running at a much closer margin than that. In the first four months of the year, only 1.3 Democrats are registering for every one Republican.
Election board data show that nearly 35 percent of the 62,353 new voters registered since Jan. 1 are Republicans, compared with 45 percent registered as Democrats. The remaining 20 VTC percent of new voters registered as independents or with a third party -- a remarkably high number, because that group accounts for fewer than 10 percent of voters statewide.
The new figures indicate a marked change from the breakdown of statewide voter registrations by party -- a tally that shows 60.5 percent of the state's 2.4 million-plus voters to be Democrats and 30 percent Republicans.
"I haven't seen the hard numbers, but the trend that 'motor voter' seems to indicate is that people are leaving the Democratic Party -- or not registering as rapidly -- which indicates that the tidal wave that happened in the '94 election is not just a blip on the screen," said C. Ronald Franks, a former state delegate and a vice chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
The GOP is hoping that trend gains momentum in Maryland, where just 20 years ago the Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a huge 3-1 margin.
In the election last year, Ellen R. Sauerbrey came within 5,993 votes of being the first Republican governor since 1966, and the GOP made healthy gains in both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, though well short of a majority.
The new registrations, coupled with changes of affiliation and removals from voter rolls, bring the Republican statewide total to 729,074 -- a net gain of 35,976 voters, or 5.2 percent -- between Dec. 31 and April 30.
In the same period, the number of registered Democrats has increased to about 1.5 million, a net gain of 23,516 voters -- just 1.6 percent -- according to the analysis of data provided by the State Administrative Board of Election Laws.
"All these increases are as a direct result of the 'motor voter' bill," said Kurt A. Hornig, voter registration coordinator for the board. "We expect a 50 percent increase in our voter rolls in the next four years."
The federal law, which was designed to make voter registration easier and get more people to the polls, is called "motor voter" because its basic provision calls for registration in conjunction with the issuance of driver's licenses. The law also requires states to sign up voters by mail, at welfare, social services and unemployment offices, and when they use certain other government services.
Before the law went into effect, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in all but four of the state's 24 jurisdictions -- Allegany, Carroll, Frederick and Garrett counties. The GOP is continuing to make gains and is threatening to overtake Democrats in a handful of other counties.
In the Baltimore metropolitan area, the Democrats still rule, but .. the GOP has picked up big numbers since the first of the year. The greatest GOP increase in the state came in Baltimore County, where Republicans saw a net gain of 3,244 voters, compared with the Democrats' 1,940.
In Anne Arundel County, the Republicans' net gain over the Democrats was 2,576, to 994. The margin was closer in Howard County, where there was an increase of 1,160 Republicans, compared with 818 Democrats. And in Harford County, the GOP realized a net gain of 1,073 voters, compared with just 214 for the Democrats -- a 5-1 margin.
Dr. Franks, a Queen Anne's County dentist who lost a bid for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate last year, said the increased Republican registrations indicated "a dissatisfaction with the process" of government.
"It does mean that the populace does recognize the shortcomings of the last 35 years," he said, referring to the Democratic control of Congress. "It's a message, and you have to be encouraged by those numbers."
The Democrats are taking the registration changes seriously, though they believe the GOP gains are temporary. And the party is about to undertake an effort to derail the trend and reclaim its once-formidable registration margins.
"I don't think this is any prognosis of a long-term thing," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.
"For one thing, we really haven't gotten cranked up yet on our really large-scale voter registration drive, which the Young Democrats are going to get started this summer," Mr. Hughes said. "I'm optimistic that as time goes on here that those results will change in the Democratic favor."
Mr. Hughes did concede that there had a been a change in the mood of the electorate. But, "we really haven't experienced the results of the 'Contract on America,' " he added, referring derisively to the GOP's "Contract with America."
"I think there are things that will change, too, when what's going on in Washington and the effects of what's going on there begins to set in," he said. "I think that will be a negative for Republicans, rather than a positive."
Meanwhile, the number of new voters registering as independent with a third party also is on the upswing, increasing to 235,487 -- a net gain of 10,509 voters, or 4.7 percent -- in the first four months of the year.
Dr. Franks and other Republicans expressed some concern over the number of new voters who have declined to affiliate with a party.
"Republicans cannot be smug about these numbers," Dr. Franks said. "While registrations for the Democrats are low, the number of independents is also up. So that means that Republicans . . . have to live up to the expectations of the people, both economically and socially, and there has to be results and good answers to the problems facing us."
Republicans in Washington fought the bill -- filibustering against it in the Senate for two weeks in 1993 -- maintaining it opened the door to voter fraud and gave the Democrats an unfair advantage because more low-income Americans who use social service programs usually vote Democratic.
Nearly 2 million new voters have signed up nationwide since the law took effect, according to Human SERVE (Service Employees Registration and Voter Education), a New York-based national voter registration group. The group does not track registrations by party. But reports from other state election boards indicate Republican gains similar or greater than those in Maryland.
"This is the biggest voter registration increase in American history," said Richard A. Cloward, executive director of Human SERVE, the lead organization in the nonpartisan National Motor Voter Coalition.
And that's just the beginning, said Mr. Cloward, a professor at Columbia University. He estimated that 20 million new voters -- mostly young people and the poor -- will be registered by the 1996 presidential election. "And just before the '98 midterm election -- assuming the Republicans don't repeal the law -- we'll probably have 50 million more names on the rolls."