High voter turnout, but for whom?

A historic peak in voter interest has both parties hoping. But who votes on Nov. 2 is anybody's guess.

All the signs are there: high viewership of the debates, a high percentage of voters telling pollsters they're following the campaign closely, and avalanches of voter registration cards burying some county election boards.

This promises to be a high-turnout election, at least by American standards. In a nation where it has become typical for half of all eligible voters to stay home even for a presidential election, the 2004 race could see turnout spike to 60 percent, say voting experts.

Historically, in presidential races, higher turnout has marginally benefited Democrats. But with both major parties and independent groups implementing finely honed registration and get-out-the-vote drives, all bets are off. It's one thing to register millions of new voters, and quite another to get them to go to the polls.

"We have a ground game on each side like we've never seen before," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota, a battleground state. "How that translates into what we're seeing in the polls is extremely problematical. Who knows who will actually vote?"

Going into Wednesday night's final presidential debate, polls showed President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry deadlocked. In the end, each candidate's turnout efforts, particularly in a handful of swing states, could spell the difference between victory and defeat. Most states have passed their registration deadlines; volunteers are now focusing on contacting voters, helping them vote early in states where that's allowed or reminding them of where to go on Election Day and offering transportation.

In six states - Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - voters can register on Election Day, leaving open the possibility of a late burst of momentum for one of the candidates that inspires previously disengaged voters, much the way Jesse Ventura rode a last-minute wave of youthful support into the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. A seventh state, North Dakota, does not require voter registration, but is considered safe for Mr. Bush. Of the others, only two are out of contention, Idaho and Wyoming.

For most states - including the three biggest electoral vote battlegrounds, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio - the voter rolls have closed. Now the race is on to make sense of all the forms and get the data entered in time for Election Day. That also means weeding out the duplicate forms some new voters have filed - just to make sure their registration "took" - and those that were inadequately completed, a standard that is open to interpretation.

Some voter registrations have been in court: In New Mexico, where 10 percent of the voting population is expected to be newly registered, the Republican Party challenged new registrations collected by outside groups, arguing that those voters should be required to show identification at the polls. That challenge lost.

Even in secretary of state offices across the country, registration numbers are only preliminary, as county election workers wade through forms. But the anecdotal evidence is that Election 2004 is already a landslide - at least in new registrations. In Colorado, another battleground state, 300,000 new voters have been added to the rolls, according to The Denver Post. In Florida, in July 2004 alone, the state recorded 151,422 new voters, compared with 77,000 in July 2000.

"In recent history, this is unprecedented," says Meredith Imwalle, communications director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "These numbers blow the 2000 numbers out of the water."

She attributes the burst of new registrations to two factors: the 2000 election, which "demonstrated to everyone that every vote counts;" and the burst of groups - from state governments to the political parties to other partisan and nonpartisan organizations - working to boost voter participation. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 has provided money to secretaries of state and chief state election officials to launch comprehensive voter education and outreach efforts.

Up till now, analysts suspect the flood of new registration has worked to the Democrats' advantage. "My guess is it's 53-47 Democratic," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Look at where the energy is. There is some energy in the Christian right on social issues. But there's a whole lot of energy on the war in Iraq and on economic matters in battleground states."

With attention turning to get-out-the-vote, the edge may shift to the Republicans, who developed a "72-hour program" that served them well in 2002. The theory is that to spur actual turnout, a voter should be contacted three times in the 72 hours before Election Day, at least one of those interpersonal.

Still, Republicans have been pounding the pavement for months. In Wisconsin, one of the same-day registration states, the Bush campaign says it has 40,000 volunteers knocking on doors and going to parades, literature always in hand.

"We've made close to a million voter contacts, either a phone call, a door knock, or something along those lines," says an official for the Bush campaign in Wisconsin. "We're ramping up to 100,000 contacted per week."

On the Democratic side nationwide, the highest-profile voter registration and turnout effort has been run by one of the independently funded 527 groups, America Coming Together. In Wisconsin, where ACT has five offices around the state, canvassers go out every afternoon and evening to talk to potential voters. As with the Republicans in Wisconsin, the focus isn't so much on registration but on turnout.

"I have personally knocked on more doors than Al Gore's margin over George Bush," says Tracy Surprise, a registered nurse on loan to ACT, knocking on doors Tuesday night in Madison, Wis. (In the 2000 race, Vice President Gore beat Bush by 5,708 votes.)

"It's pretty incredible to talk to Vietnam veterans and purple heart recipients from the Persian Gulf war who've had their benefits cut, or seniors who say, 'I can't afford my [medication] if I want to keep my house,' " says Ms. Surprise.

"Those are the kind of things that are energizing me and a lot of other people to do this work, and I think that's why we're going to see a big turnout."

Frank Bures contributed from Madison, Wis.

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