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Pennsylvania Questions Impact of Voting Bill

IF Pennsylvania ever gets motor-voter registration, the impact on voting here will probably be small. That is the consensus of a wide range of voting authorities about new state and national proposals to simplify voter registration. The main idea behind the motor-voter bill: allow people to register when they get or renew their driver's licenses.

Many people here support the concept because voter turnout has been declining in the Pittsburgh area, just as in the rest of the country. In the 1960 presidential election, for example, 87.9 percent of registered voters in Allegheny County turned out to vote. By November 1988, the figure was down to 78.7 percent.

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Interested parties from the area's League of Women Voters to the county elections department have indicated support for the idea. A Pennsylvania motor-voter bill is pending as part of a package of voting reforms introduced in the Pennsylvania House. ``Motor voter has the best chance of getting bipartisan support,'' says the bill's sponsor, state Rep. David Levdansky (D).

Last month, the US House of Representatives passed its own motor-voter proposal, which affects federal elections.

Yet despite these new pushes, many political observers, election officials, and other activists are unsure motor-voter will boost voter turnout that much.

With the Pennsylvania bill, ``a 3 percent increase in turnout would be a miracle,'' says Tari Renner, a political science professor at Duquesne University here.

Some national elections officials agree increases would be minimal.

``You probably would move up the turnout a little bit,'' says Elections Research Center Director Richard Scammon, but not very much.

Other reasons for low voter turnouts

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The problem is that motor-voter registration only addresses some of the reasons for low turnouts. Other reasons, such as voter apathy, are encouraged by the US system, Mr. Scammon says. For example, voters know that no matter who is elected, government policy will change slowly because of all the checks and balances - as opposed to Europe's parliamentary system where elections can swing a government sharply to the right or the left.

Voter apathy among the young is also a factor.

``I'm a little discouraged,'' says Rita Fardella, coordinator of the voter education and training program for the Allegheny County Department of Elections. She has visited all but 10 of the 70 or so area high schools in the last two years with a presentation and voting machine to encourage seniors to participate. Yet, she says, students often do not take the subject seriously.

Voting figures bear this out: 18- and 19-year-olds make up just under 5 percent of Allegheny County's adults, according to 1980 Census data, but their turnout is nearly one-tenth that. In March 1986 they represented only 0.5 percent of the number of registered voters in the county.

Decline of steel industry a factor

The decline of the region's steel industry has also had an impact. A recent survey by the Gallup Organization found that 30 percent of workers in Pittsburgh and the county's steel-dependent Monongahela Valley lost their jobs in the last 10 years because of plant closings, mass layoffs, downsizing, or other economic restructuring.

Many of these dislocated workers drop out of everything, including voting, says Barney Oursler, coordinator of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. Often, ``their sense of activism was built around the local congressman, and there isn't any answer coming from federal or state politicians.''

``Everybody has an excuse,'' adds Dennis Fleming, a staff member of the United Steel Workers international union active in registering union members in the area. Some people avoid voting so they won't be picked for jury duty, he says. Others don't vote so that their municipality won't find them and begin charging them local income tax.

To really register people, you have to go where they are, he says, not in government offices but in stores, malls, churches, and social clubs. ``You have got to make it easily accessible.''

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