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LAW TO STEER MORE UTAHNS TO BALLOT BOX

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Upwards of 300,000 Utahns may well become registered voters because of the new motor-voter federal law that will be implemented in Utah Jan. 1.

Only three of the 300 laws passed by the 1994 Legislature take effect Sunday - motor-voter, prohibition of smoking in public places and buildings and a little-known statute outlining a new procedure to settle civil suits before trial.Outlawing smoking in restaurants, bowling alleys and other businesses frequented by the public will be the biggest change the public will immediately notice.

But motor-voter may have the largest impact down the road. For, according to the Lieutenant Governor's Office, the law could swell the registered voter roles from 920,000 to 1.25 million - the number of eligible adults in the state.

At the very least, says state elections officer Kelleen Leishman, voter roles will pick up the lion's share of the 1.15 million adults with Utah drivers' licenses.

Under the new Utah law, every time you apply for or renew a driver's license, on the application will be a box asking if you want to register to vote - yes or no. If someone checks "no," then they don't fill out a voter registration form. "Some people will probably just say no, but we figure most will register" to vote, said Leishman.

The law also requires clerks to offer voter registration to anyone applying for state assistance programs - like welfare and food stamps - and to anyone registering for state-funded rehabilitation or disability programs. But by far, most of the new registered voters will come via the driver's license route.

Utah legislators and elections officials went along with the federal motor-voter law during the 1994 Legislature, although many reluctantly and with grumbling.

Leishman has traveled the state the past month briefing county clerks and other officials about what's required and how to format new forms.

But California didn't go along. GOP Gov. Pete Wilson sued the federal government several weeks ago and refuses to start motor-voter come Sunday. According to the Los Angles Times, Wilson says it will cost Californians $35 million a year to implement the new program and he wants the federal government to pay it. He's already sued the federal government for $3 billion, costs he says his state government pays to take care of illegal aliens.

Leishman estimates motor-voter will cost her office between $450,000 and $500,000 between January and the end of the state's fiscal year, July 1. Part of that cost is a new computer system that will track drivers' licenses with voter registration and provide for the first time a statewide voter registration data bank.

"But we do believe a number of new people will become registered; and you have to figure that's a good thing," she said.

Idaho and several other states decided to side-step motor-voter and opted instead for what's called "same-day" registration - an alternative allowed under federal law. Residents who aren't registered voters can just register at the time they vote.

But that system could be fraught with fraud, warned Leishman. "The only way to punish someone who votes five times by going to different polling places and registering five times is to prosecute them after the fact," said Leishman.

What over-burdened prosecutor wants to spend time on some wayward voter? "And what do you do about the five votes? The election is already over, the winner certified and how do you find out who they voted for, anyway?" asked Leishman. Ballots are private and anonymous.