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.
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."
The Sept. 11 attacks had a profound impact on Michael Katz, a 20-something Long Islander who plans to cast his first vote in a presidential election for George W. Bush. Afterward, Mr. Katz says, he took a fresh interest in politics and world affairs, identifying himself as a Republican for the first time as he watched Mr. Bush lead the country to war. "I've got to vote this time, especially for our age group," says Katz, "because we are the ones that will inherit this world."
For Cynthia Jaworski, however, the events of the past three years and unhappiness with what she terms Bush's "unilateralist" approach drew her to Mr. Kerry.
"No one knew Sept. 11 was coming, but the way things have been handled since then is not the way I think our country should be doing things," says the Washington, D.C., student, who will cast an absentee ballot in Pennsylvania. "I realize how valuable my vote is in Pennsylvania, which is a battleground state."
Back in Cleveland, Lavadus Morris Jr. thinks back on the elections he missed and his path from apathy to moderate activism. The burly father of five has never cast a ballot but felt forced off the sidelines by the results of the 2000 election.
"I used to think it was just a game. But as you get older, you get more experience and everybody's vote counts," says Mr. Morris. This year he registered and got seven of his friends to join him.
At Washington University in St. Louis in early October, students carrying political signs wandered the campus waiting for the beginning of the second presidential debate. Most will vote for the first time this year.
"I'm excited that I'm actually going to get a say in who's going to be president," says sophomore Elizabeth Stevens, as she walks across campus clearly stating her political preference by holding up a sign with a big "W." "There have been so many people who have died for that cause and I think it's very important to vote."
But Jeffrey Rice - who has an even more compelling reason to be be concerned about dying for one's country - isn't yet sure which candidate will earn his vote. A corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve, Mr. Rice lingers by the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va.
Rice has volunteered to go to Iraq. He doesn't know yet when he will be deployed, but he wanted to make his first stop in Washington this place of remembrance.
Next Tuesday, for the first time, Rice will cast a vote in a presidential election. "I just have to trust myself to arm myself with as much knowledge, understanding and information as possible up to Nov. 2," he says.
What he's already certain of, however, is that first-time voters' ballots will matter. "The first vote is going to set a precedent for that person, and they are going to feed off that experience," he says. "If there is one underlying factor that is going to sway first-time voters this time, then that may turn into a trend and they may end up changing the course of history at some point."
• Cheryl Sullivan contributed to this report.