When Choosing a Party, Many Motor Voters in Neutral : Registration: Law fails to boost Democratic ranks, confounding expectations. One-third of those who signed up at DMV, agencies declared no preference or identified with an alternative.

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More than one-third of all Ventura County residents who registered to vote this summer at motor vehicle offices and social services agencies under the new "motor voter" law snubbed the two major political parties.

Almost as many declared no preference or registered for an alternative party--36%--as declared for the Republican party--38%. And Democrats, who motor voter opponents thought would benefit most from the program, attracted only a quarter of the fresh crop of balloters.

That was a big step down for Democrats, who otherwise make up 41% of the county electorate. Republicans account for 44% and minority parties claim only 4%, so the message from motor voters is clear, said Bruce Bradley, assistant registrar of voters for the county.

"The major parties are not getting many of the new voters. They are joining minor parties or no parties at all, which is kind of like the national trend. I think it is just a dissatisfaction with the party structure as it exists."

Christopher Olivas, a 22-year-old musician with curly black hair and a goatee, fits into that trend.

The Camarillo resident signed up to vote while applying for a California identification card at the Department of Motor Vehicles. But in the column of boxes that asked for his party registration, Olivas checked "Decline to State."

"I am not even sure which party I would sign up with," Olivas said. "I just think government is stupid. Politicians are just crooks."

Olivas was among 4,538 county residents who took advantage of the motor voter law between June 19 and Sept. 11, and even some who chose a party affiliation were not happy about it.

"It's the lesser of two evils," said Jedediah Laub-Klein, a 22-year-old Ventura student, who registered as a Democrat while waiting in line to get his driver's license. "There are two problems in American politics: Democrats and Republicans."

Troy Mull, a 33-year-old San Diego resident who lives part time in Ventura, registered to vote for the first time in his life while renewing his driver's license. Though Mull stuck with family tradition and registered as a Democrat, he warned that he could change his mind.

"I'm [upset] at the way the country is being run," Mull said. "Next time I will consider 'Decline to State.' "

Long pursued by Democrats as a way to boost voter registration, the motor voter law was passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Clinton. California Gov. Pete Wilson has challenged the law, which is expected to increase the number of registered voters in the state by as much as 15%.

In a lawsuit, Wilson argues that the law should not be implemented in California unless the federal government provides the $18 million the program is expected to cost. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the suit several months ago and the governor is in the process of appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bradley said he is not certain what the law will end up costing Ventura County, but said the program could top $150,000 if voter rolls increase by the 15% projected. Voter registration materials are now available at 250 locations, including DMV offices, social service agencies and fire stations.

"It hasn't cost us anything yet because we haven't had an election," Bradley said. "But it could cost a lot of money."

So far, the motor voter law has not caused the county's voting ranks to swell. In fact, the number of registered voters now stands at 347,000, down from 359,000 in 1992, a presidential election year. Motor voters account for 36% of residents who registered to vote this summer, Bradley said.

Though Ventura County's 80% voter registration rate is among the highest in the state, actual voter turnout is much lower. About 63% of county voters cast ballots in the 1994 gubernatorial election.

Bradley predicts the motor voter program may actually cause Ventura County's voter turnout to decline.

"Motor voter may decrease turnout by getting people on the rolls who don't turn out and vote," Bradley said. "Just because people are registered doesn't mean they turn out and vote."

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