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Signing up America to vote; More than 200 groups have been urging potential voters to sign on the dotted line in the most massive registration effort in US history

Saturday shoppers crowd the huge Lenox Square indoor mall here. Smack in the middle of one of the walkways, four volunteers from the League of Women Voters sit behind two folding tables covered with red, white, and blue banners. A near-steady flow of shoppers moves up to the tables to register to vote.

One of them is Mark Conklin, a 24-year-old college student and part-time waiter. He attributes his signing up to ''more awareness of what's going on in politics and actually caring about what's going on.'' He says he intends to vote for President Reagan.

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The same day, next to a rapid-rail station in Atlanta's West End neighborhood , volunteers from several civil rights and other groups call to passers-by, asking them if they have registered to vote. Among those who stop at one of the two card tables to sign up is Jerome Jackson Jr., 37. Mr. Jackson, who has been unemployed since 1979, says he has never voted.

''I've been sitting back and seeing people vote, then the officials who got elected weren't doing anything. Then I said I wasn't doing anything either. If I don't vote, I have nothing to say about what goes on in government,'' he explains, adding that he will probably vote for Democratic presidential hopeful Walter F. Mondale.

Both men were signed up as part of what elections experts are calling the most massive voter-registration efforts ever in the United States. More than 200 organizations, some pro-Republican, some pro-Democratic, others nonpartisan, such as the League of Women Voters, have been scrambling to sign up new voters.

On Thursday, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate released figures that give an indication of how effective these registration drives have been. Based on data from 30 states, committee director Curtis B. Gans says he expects the registration rate among the voting-age population this year to top 1980's rate by more than 3 percent. The Census Bureau puts 1980's registration rate at 70.4 percent of the voting-age population. Overall, Mr. Gans forecasts that 127.5 million people will have registered for this election. Based on a similar study of 49 states in 1980, an estimated 115 million people were registered that year.

The 30 states in this year's survey include such key battlegrounds as California, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. Fourteen of the 30 states surveyed report registration by party. Of those, Republicans posted net gains over 1980 in 10 states, including Florida and California. Democrats posted net gains in four, including North Carolina.

Of the states surveyed, Tennessee posted the largest increase in registration rates, from 64.7 percent in 1980 to 74.2 percent this year. At 90.2 percent, Michigan reported the highest registration rate.

Elections experts and those active in some of the registration drives say that the unprecedented push to sign up new voters has spotlighted several issues: 1. Voter turnout.

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Registration is important, says Raymond E. Wolfinger, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He estimates that about 87 percent of those registered vote. Gans puts the turnout rate among registered voters closer to 75 percent.

Either way, it's the high correlation between registration and voting that leads some to suggest that current registration efforts may help reverse a 24 -year decline in voter turnout for presidential elections.

To be sure, there are other factors at work in determining voter turnout. The decline in voter participation since 1960 - when using the total voting-age population as the benchmark - is linked to ''declining confidence (among the voting-age public) in their ballot making a difference,'' Gans suggests. Vietnam , urban renewal and blight, pollution, and economic stresses left many voters with their ''faith shaken'' in the old system with nothing to take its place.

Another reason for a decline was the lowering of the voting age to 18, says Professor Wolfinger. Younger voters have had a low voter-participation rate, he says. But as the nation's population ages, voter turnout is likely to increase, he adds.

If there is a higher voter turnout Tuesday, among whites and blacks, and others, it may be because 1984 is ''an aberrational year because of the degree of polarization Ronald Reagan has produced,'' says Gans. Voter participation is not likely to go on up and up, he adds.

Does it matter how many people vote?

The majority of Americans evidently believe voting is important: More than half of them vote in presidential elections.

But Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center, says of the level of voter turnout: ''I don't know whether it matters or not. We've done pretty well.''

''People should clearly have the right not to vote,'' says Gans. But, he says , the smaller the percentage of voters, the greater the influence of those who do vote. And those ''really interested'' in voting often include people dedicated to a particular cause, he says.

A study co-written by Dr. Wolfinger found that even if everyone of voting age voted, there would be little difference in outcomes ''because voters are almost a representative sample of all adult citizens in terms of political attitudes.'' 2. Sharing the credit.

If the turnout exceeds the 52.6 percent of the voting-age population that cast a ballot in 1980, who gets the credit? How many people who signed up in registration drives would have signed up on their own and voted?

This year Republican and Democratic Party officials have been convinced they had to push voter registration, if for no other reason than to match what the other side was doing.

''I knew we needed to do something to balance what the opposition would do,'' says Helen Cameron, director of voter programs for the Reagan-Bush campaign. She says the party has signed up more than 4 million voters. And she says the party has their names, addresses and telephone numbers to use next Tuesday to encourage them to get to the polls.

Ann Lewis, political director for the Democratic Party, says: ''On our side we have more than met our goal of 5 million'' newly registered voters. This is the number she estimates have been signed up by the party and other pro-Democratic groups.

''Don't believe anybody's figures. It's a game of hype,'' cautions Gans. The most reliable registration figures are the ones reported by the secretary of state's offices in each state, he says.

Even some of these figures are not very useful because some states do not ''purge,'' or fall behind in purging, that is, removing names of nonvoters from time to time from registration rolls.

According to his study of registration efforts leading up to Tuesday's elections, with the exception of nonpartisan groups, the groups doing the registering represented ''the entire spectrum of American politics,'' says Gans. In addition to the two major political parties, he says, groups recruiting new voters include: conservatives and liberals; fundamentalist and ecumenical Christians; labor unions and business organizations; blacks, Latinos, and other minorities; women; environmentalists; and state governments.

''Targeting'' is the name of the registration game. If you want Mondale or Reagan voters, you target your efforts to those likely to vote for them.

For Democrats, that's easier because there are more Democrats than Republicans. They can go into a predominantly Democratic area, set up a table, and be fairly sure of signing up more Democrats than Republicans.

Republicans have to be more precise. They have been using computers to match courthouse lists of voters with telephone directory listings to find nonvoters. Then they call the nonvoters and ask their presidential preference. Those preferring Reagan are signed up, if they can be persuaded to do so. Their names are kept for follow-up calls on election day to make sure they get to the polls.

''We are registering the haystacks while the Republicans are registering the needle in the haystacks,'' sums up Gene Russell, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

One of the main targeted groups has been blacks, especially in the Southern states, which have the highest percentages of blacks. When you look at some of the narrow margins by which Reagan carried some states, and then look at the number of blacks that were unregistered at the time, it appears that signing up more blacks to vote could make a difference, says Joseph Madison, national director for the voter education department of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP and other groups targeting blacks registered those waiting in line at Michael Jackson concerts, those participating in marches recalling some of the routes of the ''underground railroad'' by which many slaves once fled to freedom in the North, and those at welfare offices, in food stamp lines, and in housing projects. Black interest in voting picked up with the election of black mayors in Chicago and Philadelphia, then with Jesse Jackson's registration efforts and his presidential candidacy, Mr. Madison says.

In Mississippi, Jackson ''is really having a great influence on the young people,'' says Mary Hightower a local jail official in Lexington, Miss. ''I really believe they're gonna get out and vote.''

The key to black turnout now, says Madison, is to ''get rid of this defeatist attitude'' that Mondale can't win and to get blacks to the polls.

Madison claims more than a million blacks nationally have been signed up to vote through NAACP drives. A national elections expert, who asked not to be quoted about this point, calls the 1 million figure ''very soft,'' however. STORY WAS FETCHED BY WILSON ON 04-NOV-84,11:23: NEW FILE NAME IS ZREG1-EDIT-MEX

There is also some dispute over estimates by the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project (VEP) that since 1980 the net gain of registered blacks in the South is about 1 million, compared with a net gain of only about 60,000 whites during that period. The project seeks greater participation of blacks in elections.

VEP research director Brian Sherman says that about 2 million whites have been dropped from voting roles in the South since 1980 as states purged nonvoters. About the same number of whites, have been registered since then, he says, though many of these may be Texas Mexican-Americans. The net gain for nonblacks is very little, he says. Meanwhile, black registration has continued climbing since 1980, says Sherman.

Gans estimates that, in terms of new voters, ''Republicans have more than held their own in the South'' against efforts to sign up blacks - most of whom are considered likely to back Mondale.

In any case, Republicans and Democrats have a gold mine for future elections in the long lists of newly registered voters they have signed up and identified as leaning toward their party. 3. Barriers to voting.

''Registration is much easier now - for all kinds of people - than it was 10 years ago,'' says American University's Richard Smolka, author of a national newsletter for elections officials. ''The net effect has not been to increase turnout. But I think it will go up,'' he says, primarily because of a growing feeling among blacks that their vote can make a difference.

Still, while literacy tests and poll taxes are a thing of the past, more reforms are needed to make voting easier, some experts say. Since 1973, about half the states have adopted registration by mail. Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin allow registration on election day; North Dakota has no registration. Several states promote registration through their motor- vehicle license bureaus. Some states use deputy registrars, often volunteers, to sign up voters in various locations.

But other states and counties have not taken such steps. Many Southern counties do not use deputy registrars and still have short hours and inconvenient locations for registration offices, says Geraldine Thompson, executive director of the VEP. She says there are still too many barriers to voting. She would like to see a one-time, lifetime registration and uniform voter-registration laws for all states.

Political scientist Wolfinger has another suggestion: Allow people moving from one voting precinct to another to re-register simply by filling out voter information on a revised post office change-of-address card. Then postal officials would forward it to the new voting location.

A University of Michigan survey showed that from 1978 to 1980 about a third of the voting-age population moved, most of them within the same state. Movers have a lower voting turnout than nonmovers, he says. Voter registration

Q. Is your name now recorded in the registration book of the precinct or election district where you now live?

Point Percent registered 1980 1984 difference National 70% 74% +4 Men 71 74 +3 Women 69 73 +4 18-24 years 45 52 +7 25-29 years 57 58 +1 30-49 years 74 75 +1 50-64 years 83 87 +4 65 & older 84 87 +3 Whites 71 74 +3 Blacks 66 76 +10 College grads. 81 83 +2 Some college 77 78 +1 High school grads. 67 70 +3 High school grads. 67 70 +3 Some high school 65 67 +2 East 72 73 +1 Midwest 75 77 +2 South 68 71 +3 West 65 74 +9 Republicans 78 80 +2 Democrats 74 78 +4 Independents 62 64 +2 Source: Gallup poll Profile of registered voters, 1980 SEX 48% Male 52% Female RACE 87% White 13% Non-white EDUCATION 14% Grade school 53% High school 33% College REGION 27% East 28% Midwest 28% South 17% West AGE 11% 18-24 years 9% 25-29 years 35% 30-49 years 45% 50 and older INCOME 10% Under $5,000 16% $5,000-$9,999 18% 10,000-$14,999 16% $15,000-$19,999 13% $20,000-$24,999 27% $25,000 and over POLITICAL AFFILIATION 27% Republican 48% Democrat 23% Independent 2% Other RELIGION 62% Protestant 29% Roman Catholic 2% Jewish 7% Other OCCUPATION 29% Professional and business 7% Clerical and sales 36% Manual workers 3% Farmers 23% Not in labor force LABOR AFFILIATION 25% Union families 75% Nonunion families Source: Gallup poll SHIRLEY HORN - STAFF

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