‘Motor Voter’ Putt-Putts Along : Registration has not kicked into high gear in wake of new law. Motivation may be a bigger issue than convenience.
There’s no reason to make a federal case out of it, suggests Kymberly Killian.
Fact is, Killian simply wasn’t interested in registering to vote as she stood in line with dozens of other motorists. No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court says.
Killian was at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Culver City this week, hours after the high court brushed aside California’s challenge to the federal “motor voter” law that lets U.S. citizens register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license.
“Finding a place to register hasn’t been my problem,” explained Killian, a salesclerk who lives in Century City. “My problem is I haven’t seen anybody I’d vote for.”
There were nods of agreement as others in the line shrugged off the new voter sign-up program--one that was vigorously fought by Gov. Pete Wilson even as California began recruiting new voters at its DMV offices last June 19.
Wilson and other opponents of motor voter registration had argued that it would cost California as much as $35 million a year to implement the law. Its supporters had countered by saying that it would add another 3 million names to the state’s voter rolls.
So far, both sides have been wrong.
Officials now estimate that voter registration at the state’s 170 motor vehicle offices will cost $3 million a year to administer.
And during the seven months that the motor voter law has been in effect in California, only 457,470 of the 4.6 million motorists who have renewed or newly obtained a driver’s license have also registered to vote.
About 46% of those were existing voters who merely used the DMV service to update their address with elections officials, according to statistics compiled by the California secretary of state.
Tear-off registration forms are included on driver’s license renewal applications; people who haven’t filled the form out in advance can do it at the DMV office.
“There haven’t been any problems so far,” said William Madison, a DMV spokesman in Sacramento. “It’s not had a major impact on our lives in terms of longer lines or delays.”
DMV offices also have regular mail-in voter registration forms available. “We have them on our counters--we’ve had them for years,” Madison said.
State election officials say 74.7% (about 14.3 million) of California’s 19.2 million potential voters are registered.
The number of registered voters has increased by about two-thirds of a percentage point since June. But whether the motor voter law has been a factor in that increase is unknown; there have been several voter registration drives and there usually is increased public interest in voting as presidential elections near, according to officials.
It likewise is too early to predict what long-range effect, if any, the motor voter law will have on California’s registration picture, according to Secretary of State Bill Jones.
But Congress should follow up by approving cheaper postal rates for motor voter mailings and should take steps to reduce federal record-keeping requirements that have come with the measure, Jones said after Monday’s refusal by the Supreme Court to hear Wilson’s appeal of the law.
Los Angeles County election officials said motor voter registration is going smoothly for them.
Of the 322,000 voter affidavits filed by county residents since motor voter registration began, about 48,000 have come from DMV offices, said Wendell Paterson, manager of voter records for the county registrar-recorder’s office.
Another 11,800 have come from social service agencies such as welfare offices--which are also covered by the motor voter law.
Those who have used the new service praise it.
“It saves time. I just wish I could renew my passport here while I’m at it,” said Christa Foley, a Santa Monica makeup artist who registered to vote when she visited the Culver City DMV office this week to get a new driver’s license.
The person standing behind her in line, Casey Gray, a model and actress from Beverly Hills, was too busy to fill out the voter form. “I need to register. But I’m concentrating more on learning this before I take the driver’s test,” Gray said, fingering the DMV’s traffic law handbook.
Gray had traveled to the DMV office with her mother, Diana Gray, who is visiting from Denver. She shook her head at her daughter’s explanation and commented: “Mom says she needs to register to vote. She will.”
The “too busy” excuse is common, according to Patty Davis, a DMV supervisor whose staff handles registration requests. “Most people coming here just want to do what they have to do and get out,” she said.
Some DMV visitors said they have no intention of registering to vote, no matter how easy it is.
“Voting is against my religion,” said Jim Centers, an antique dealer from Los Angeles. “It’s in the Bible: ‘Be not entangled with the affairs of this world.’ ”
At the Hollywood DMV office, where many immigrants come to take their driving tests, many of those waiting in line said they cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens. Like all voter registration forms, motor voter affidavits require applicants to attest that they are citizens and are 18 or older.
One middle-aged man wearing a shirt and tie and backpack said he is eligible to vote but refuses to. He drew looks of shock from those around him when he explained why.
“Politicians are all scum,” he said. “I’d vote for the Unabomber before I’d vote for any of them.”
Muttered a woman a few steps ahead of him in the line: “The people who are scum are those who have the right to vote but don’t bother to.
“People who don’t bother to vote have no right to complain.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
In California, there is still time to register to vote in the 1996 presidential election. Under state law, you can register until 29 days before the election in which you want to vote.
In addition to registering at the Department of Motor Vehicles and some social service agencies, you can obtain postage- prepaid voter registration forms from libraries, post offices, fire stations and some government offices. Or call the state’s voter registration request line at (800) 481- VOTE, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
‘96 Election Dates
March 26. California primary (must register by Feb. 26)
Nov. 5. General election (must register by Oct.8)
* You must be a a U.S. Citizen and a resident of California.
* You must be 18 or older on the day of the election.
* You must not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction.
Source: County of Los Angeles 1995 Voter Guide