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Too much at stake to stay home

The first-time voters of 2004: energized by a tight race and a new conviction that every vote counts.

By Andy NelsonStaff photographer / October 28, 2004



CLEVELAND

Until this year, Sharon Zalewski never considered herself a political person. Since she turned 18 she has allowed six presidential elections to pass without casting a single vote. Her days were filled with her family and the small retail fish business she operates in Cleveland's West Side Market.

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Then she watched a razor-thin margin determine the outcome of the 2000 election and later felt the pinch of an economic downturn that hit Ohio hard.

Finally, she says, in her mid-40s, she decided it was time to register and vote.

"I always thought in the past my vote didn't count," says Ms. Zalewski, standing amid the early-morning bustle of the market as butchers, bakers, and fishmongers ready their stalls for a day's business. "But now I'm convinced it will."

First-time voters like Zalewski have become a focal point of political parties and interest groups as they struggle for any edge in the final days of a presidential election that's too close to call.

Between 12 million and 15 million new voters are likely to turn out for this election, says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Some of the increase is due to get-out-the-vote efforts. Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan registration campaign targeted primarily at younger voters, has registered more than 1.4 million people since the beginning of the year. Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman says the Republicans have registered 3.4 million new voters. America Votes, a left-leaning group, has tallied 2.5 million new registrants.

Across the nation, elections officials are handling an avalanche of voter registrations forms. Among key battleground states, Florida and Ohio saw increases of 1.5 million and 790,000 voters, respectively. Nevada registered more than 192,000 new voters and New Mexico 112,000.

The partisan alignment of the new voters appears to be similar to that of the electorate at large. A Pace University/Rock the Vote poll in July found new registrants were about 35 percent Democratic, 33 Republican, and 23 independent.

As a group, these first-time voters are most likely to be younger, less educated, and less well off than the electorate at large, says Michael McDonald, a voting expert at the Brookings Institution.

The leap in participation may be greatest among voters ages 18 to 24, Mr. Gans says. Certainly this age group, always at the bottom of the participation ranking, has the most potential for improvement. Its best turnout of the past 30 years came in 1992 (Bill Clinton vs. George H. W. Bush), when 40.1 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. "There's a likelihood that this year we will equal or exceed that," Gans says.

"What we have this year compared to other years is motivation," he says. "George Bush is such a lightning rod - on a range of issues - that it appears people are more motivated to go to the polls, pro and con."

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