Supporters of "motor voter" programs -- in which people can register to vote automatically when they renew or apply for driver's licenses -- are promoting this year's election results as proof that such programs raise voter turnout dramatically.

The average turnout in five states that have implemented motor voter programs since 1986 was 44.9 percent, according to the nonpartisan voter registration reform organization, 100% Vote, but turnout was only 34.7 percent in the remaining states. Total national turnout this year was 35.6 percent. Registration was up in all motor voter states, but declined about 2 points nationally to 62 percent.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate was less certain of cause and effect. "Motor voter programs definitely increase registration," he said. "What is not sure is whether it increases turnout. It happens to be true in this election that turnout increased."

He said that there was a 20 percent increase since 1986 in turnout in North Carolina, a motor voter state, but that this year's Senate election generated intense voter interest. Richard A. Cloward, executive director of 100% Vote, countered that in another state, Texas, that had a highly competitive gubernatorial race, voter turnout was down. Texas does not have motor voter registration.

Cloward said if motor voter programs were instituted by all states, 91 percent of the eligible electorate would be registered and "turnout would go up 10 to 12 percentage points."