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Variety of options, like mail-in ballots, might entice nonvoters to participate

WASHINGTON — Nonvoters say they would be more likely to vote if they could cast their ballots by mail, over the Internet, over a period of several days, on the weekends or on the same day they register, says a new poll.

A third of voters in the poll taken for the Medill School of Journalism said they cast ballots in previous elections, and about that many said they closely follow politics.

National and state leaders are pondering many election reforms after the closely contested 2000 presidential election. The poll suggested that some nonvoters might be lured back to the polls if voting were made easier.

"What was surprising to us was finding such a high number of now-and-then voters," said Ellen Shearer, co-director of the Medill News Service. One of the best ways to increase voter turnout "may be motivating these occasional voters — about a third of all citizens — to become regular voters rather than in motivating chronic nonvoters."

The poll, released last week, said nonvoters tended to be younger, lower-income, less-educated and more independent-minded.

The poll suggested actions that might make people more likely to vote, but some election analysts say many efforts in past years to make voting more accessible generally have not succeeded. All-mail balloting in Oregon is an exception.

"Of all the things ever mentioned that were supposed to increase turnout, all-mail balloting is the only one that has actually increased voter turnout," said Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, an organization based in Houston that monitors state and federal election laws.

Many people assume nonvoters generally are a pretty alienated and unmotivated group, Shearer said, but the survey suggested many could be drawn back to the voting booth.

Nonvoters suggested these as changes that would make them more likely to vote:

Being allowed to register and vote on the same day, 64 percent.

Holding elections over two or three days, 57 percent.

Allowing everyone to vote by mail, 42 percent.

Allowing people to vote over the Internet, 41 percent.

Holding elections on the weekend, 37 percent.

Oregon and Washington states already allow widespread voting by mail, and about a half-dozen states have same-day registration. Several have experimented with voting on Saturdays as well as allowing "early voting." Other states are examining the feasibility of voting through the Internet.

Oregon has seen a significant increase in its voter turnout for special elections and other small-scale contests over the last decade, said Collette Burghart of the Oregon Division of Elections. Voter turnout for general elections was already high before all-mail voting, she said. -->

A study commissioned by the National Science Foundation reported last week that Internet voting from home or the workplace should not be done yet because significant questions about security remain.

Just over half of the voting-age population, 51 percent, cast ballots in November, slightly more than the 49 percent who voted in the 1996 presidential election. Voter turnout has dropped steadily over the last four decades since more than six in 10 voted in the 1960 presidential election.