Starting the push to the polls

Turnout: In the Bush-Kerry contest, the best get-out-the-vote offensive could decide the winner.

Election 2004

October 20, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Election Day is two weeks off, but it's already over for early voters like Jean Andrews, who didn't make up her mind in the presidential contest "until I actually put my finger" on the touch-screen voting machine.

As she left a South Florida polling place, the 77-year-old widow admitted that President Bush often "really annoys the living daylights out of me." She wants the United States to "get the heck out of Iraq," considers Vice President Dick Cheney "weird" and thinks the administration has a poor record on her pet issue, the environment.

But Sen. John Kerry hasn't offered much of an agenda for the environment, she added. So the retired school cafeteria manager wound up voting for Bush, then split her ticket and backed Democrat Betty Castor in Florida's red-hot Senate race.

Kerry's failure to close the sale with one fence-straddling voter in this crucial state points up a shortcoming of the early voting trend, say critics. Those who cast ballots ahead of time don't have the same information as those who vote on Election Day.

"Suppose they catch Osama bin Laden three days before the election? Twenty million people will have voted by then," said Curtis Gans of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

About 32 states encourage early voting. Some, including Florida, are letting citizens vote at satellite locations, such as libraries and shopping centers. Others offer mail-only voting (Oregon) or liberalized no-excuse absentee balloting. Maryland is among the states limiting absentee voting to those who cannot go to the polls on Election Day.

It's part of a reform effort to make voting as easy as possible and reverse a long-term decline in voter participation. But a recent study by Gans concluded that early voting hurts turnout. States that adopted the reforms have had smaller increases in participation in years when turnout roseand sharper declines when it fell, he found.

The Bush and Kerry camps think early voting, is a wonderful ideathough. It gives them more time to get supporters to vote and might even decide who wins the election.

Four years ago in Iowa, for example, Bush received more votes than Al Gore on Election Day. But because Gore outpaced Bush by a wider margin in early voting, he carried the state by a slim margin.

Estimates of total voter turnout this year range as high as 121 million, up sharply over the last presidential election and perhaps approaching the highest participation level since 1968. About one of every five votes is expected to be cast early.

All elections are decided by turnout. But no presidential contest in recent history has seemed more likely to turn on get-out-the-vote efforts than this one.

Both sides have organized massive door-to-door drives, ground operations that meld old-fashioned grassroots politics and technology.

Chicago media consultant David Axelrod, who produces ads for the Democratic National Committee, uses a football analogy to explain this effort's importance to Kerry's chances. The goal, he said, is keeping the race close enough in key states so that Kerry's "special teams" can kick a winning field goal.

Privately, a senior Bush campaign official confided not long ago that the Democrats have done a superior job of registering and mobilizing supporters, which could be a decisive advantage in the election. But a Kerry strategist cautions that the Democratic turnout operation is unlikely to add more than 1.5 percentage points to Kerry's vote, underscoring its limitations.

An Associated Press analysis this week of new voter registration found that the Democrats had added more voters than Republicans in battleground states, including Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire.

Kerry has relied largely on the efforts of outside groups like America Coming Together, which has raised more than $100 million to mobilize Democrats. Along with other pro-Kerry groups, ACT says it registered three million voters through a staff of some 4,000 paid workers at 540 offices in 13 states.

Leading up to Election Day, some 45,000 ACT workers will get $75 a day for knocking on doors, phoning voters and driving them to polling places, according to spokeswoman Sarah Leonard. Most will be deployed in the three largest battlegrounds - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - where they'll be joined by 30,000 volunteers, half from out-of-state, she said.

Those claims cannot be verified. Neither can numbers from the Republican National Committee, which boasts more than 1.6 million volunteer and paid Election Day workers in 50 states, including some who will earn $25 per day and have travel expenses reimbursed if sent to other states.

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