More can vote turnout in doubt; Registration is up, but how many will cast ballots is unclear; CAMPAIGN 1996


Mirroring a national trend, a record number of Marylanders are registered to vote in the election Tuesday, mostly owing to new registrations from the so-called "motor-voter" law.

But as the election -- a presidential race and congressional contests that many are greeting with a yawn -- nears, officials, party operatives and political observers are wondering how much of the sleepy electorate will actually turn out to exercise their franchise.

The state has 2.5 million registered voters -- a figure that is up by roughly 125,000 since the 1992 presidential election. Political observers predict the turnout will be less than in 1992, when 81 percent of the voters went to the polls.

"It's not clear why people should be interested," said Eric "Rick" M. Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at University of Maryland College Park and an expert in electoral behavior. "There's no stirring campaign in Maryland."

Keith Haller, who heads Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda polling firm, agreed.

"If there was last minute excitement for this presidential campaign, and it was cresting, you might then argue that the turnout would be affected," Haller said.

But, he said, "the ultimate turnout numbers will be less than we've seen in recent presidential elections" because of "disinterest in the candidates" and last-minute revelations about disturbing" fund-raising efforts by both parties.

"It's unimaginable that people would want to rush to the polls because the entire political process has been called into serious question by that," he said.

Nevertheless, Gene M. Raynor, the state election administrator, predicted a turnout of nearly 80 percent. It could possibly top the statewide turnout in 1992, when Bill Clinton won over George Bush by a margin second only to that in his home state of Arkansas.

"It's a very natural thing: people want to vote for a president of the United States," Raynor said. "A presidential general [election] is our highest voter turnout historically, and it will be this Tuesday also."

Democrats and others believe that President Clinton will win handily over Republican Bob Dole in Maryland -- a contention that local GOP leaders quietly concede.

Nevertheless, state Republicans are pleased with the gains they've made in voter registration since the 1992 election.

Statewide, Republicans saw the greatest increase in registered voters since 1992, up 57,933 for a total of 775,986 this year,

according to state election board figures released Thursday.

The second greatest increase was the number of voters who registered as independents and as members of smaller political parties -- Libertarian, Reform, Natural-Law and Taxpayers -- all of which will have presidential candidates on Maryland's ballot this year.

Independents and voters registered as other than Democrats or Republicans now number 293,833 in the state -- up 54,970 since 1992.

Democrats -- who still outnumber Republicans by a 1.9-to-1 ratio in the state -- saw a net gain of 12,064 voters statewide since 1992.

The GOP has been slowly gaining ground on the Democrats, who control much of the State House and General Assembly, as well as the two U.S. Senate seats and half the congressional delegation.

Last October, Maryland Republicans broke a magic barrier -- the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans -- for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. At times in the last six decades, Democrats have outnumbered Republicans as much as nearly 3-to-1.

Election board statistics show that much of the GOP's gain in the state was made because of the motor voter law, formally known as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which became effective Jan. 1, 1995. This will be the first nationwide election since the law went into effect.

Ironically, it was the Republicans who repeatedly tried to kill the motor voter law on Capitol Hill, predicting fraud, abuse and a tilt of voter rolls in favor of the Democrats.

State election officials credit the federal motor voter law for the overall increase in voter registrations for all parties.

"You can see from the 1995 yearly totals that almost 50 percent of new registrations were due to motor voter," said Tom Surock, the state election board's motor voter coordinator.

And that trend is continuing in the state this year, he said.

Nationally, the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Secretaries of State released a statement yesterday crediting the motor voter law for a record 146,827,352 registered voters nationwide.

"Thanks to the National Voter Registration Act, the power has been placed in the hands of the people, by keeping registration easy and uniform throughout the nation," said Montana Secretary of State Mike Cooney, president of the NASS.

Getting all those good people to actually vote, however, is another story.

"Customarily, first-time registrants tend to vote in fairly large numbers, but it strikes me that you might want to throw out those academic models for studying new voters," said Haller.

"These new voters are not now being given new stimuli that their vote will will have any kind of significant meaning," he said.

Haller believes that interest in the presidential race -- which could have given a push to some Democratic congressional challengers in Maryland -- peaked about three weeks ago.

"It was like the balloon was sort of punctured, and all signals for a big Democratic year have sort of evaporated," he said.

Uslaner also questioned the motivation for first-time voters, saying, "They can register you, but that doesn't mean you're going to be interested enough to vote."

Party officials, too, are unclear as to the effect of the increase in registrations -- though Democrats and Republicans alike are pushing to get out the vote Tuesday and drawing attention to the election with a blitz of phone calls to voters, car caravans and rallies.

"The big question is turnout," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chair of the Maryland Republican Party.

"This will be the first opportunity for those who registered under motor voter to vote," she said "And the question is, did they register purely because of the convenience, or are they going to follow through?"

Terhes said she is concerned that the electorate has turned "apathetic and distrustful" and that voter turnouts generally will continue the downward swing of recent years.

Richard R. Parsons, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he was, too, had voter turnout on his mind.

"I'm always concerned about it, but Democrats are responding very well," Parsons said.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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