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CAMPAIGN 2000

Where Voting Is a Primary Concern

Elections: In New Hampshire, residents consistently turn out to flex their strong political muscles.

February 02, 2000|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEDFORD, N.H. — At 6:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the polls even opened and 12 minutes before the sun came up, there were 85 people lined up in 20-degree weather outside McKelvie Middle School, waiting to vote.

Cars were backed up half a mile for a parking space. The pint-sized Bedford Police Department, which protects and preserves this New England town of 15,000, put eight officers on the job just to manage the traffic.

No matter what the conditions, in ice and blizzard and biting wind, when the races are tight, when the races are tepid, New Hampshire votes. In presidential primaries over the last quarter century, turnout has peaked at a whopping 88%. And Tuesday was shaping up to be a record, state officials predicted.

The Kings don't draw hockey crowds like this. It would take a semiannual Barney's warehouse sale to get this many people to queue up in Los Angeles.

But here in New Hampshire, voting seems to be in the genes, a reason for living. It is their Super Bowl. Their World Series. It might be harder for New Hampshire not to vote.

"Alas, you can only vote once," one man in an overcoat lamented while leaving the polls.

It is fair to say that if not for its first-in-the-nation primary, the media of the world would pay scant attention to the Granite State. (Instead, reporters from Copenhagen to Tokyo were beaming back images all week of New Hampshire doing what it does best.) More than one person has observed that if all voters got as revved up as New Hampshire voters, Washington would be a different place.

"Some people say it's because we get so much attention. But it's more than that. Voting here is so personal to so many people," Secretary of State Bill Gardner said.

For the last two presidential primaries, the turnout here has doubled the national average. And in 250-year-old Bedford, a mostly Republican, well-to-do bastion of high-tech workers and Cape Cod houses, the turnout rate is consistently among the highest in the state. Of about 11,000 registered voters, more than two-thirds voted Tuesday.

The conditions were ripe for a doozy. The sky was blue, the mercury shot all the way up to 36, "sweater weather," the locals rejoiced. All day long, a steady stream of voters slogged through the slush to the little brick school--the only polling place in town, which is the way it's always been, even though the population has exploded tenfold since 1950.

But come election day, it seems the best thing a candidate can do is leave the voters alone. Most of the field wound up canceling their Tuesday schedules when it became clear they were only ticking off the elec

torate. An 8:30 a.m. visit by Texas Gov. George W. Bush further gummed up the traffic and left some people grumbling.

No wonder. New Hampshirites get so much attention from candidates for so many weeks (one in five has shaken a would-be president's hand), they are sick of it by the time the big day rolls around. Their phones ring so often with candidate pleadings that some voters take the receiver off the hook.

"I must have gotten 900 phone calls. The phone rings all the time," said Anne Landini, a retired teacher.

She wasn't complaining.

Enthusiasm like this is something election officials can only dream about in California, where the parties have resorted to handing out free doughnuts to lure people to the polls.

Here, you don't get so much as a sticker that says "I Voted," which would only beg the response: "Yeah, You And Everybody Else."

"It's a great event. It's a really, really great event," Bedford Police Officer Tom Fleming enthused as he directed cars into the school parking lot. "Everybody wants to show they really give a darn. And they do."

New Hampshire is the pinnacle of retail politics, a face-to-face style of campaigning foreign to states like California, which by virtue of their size, are left to rely on TV ads, news accounts and sound bites.

"In New Hampshire, you've got organization, you've got volunteers, you've got phone banks and candidates in living rooms--all the things you don't have in California politics," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington. "After this, it's all tarmac interviews and TV ads, which not only fail to mobilize people, they turn people off."

Even New Hampshire's low moments put states like California to shame: The worst turnout in contested presidential primaries in the last 24 years was 70%. By contrast, California has been stuck in the 40s since 1984.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones is hoping the picture will improve now that the primary has been moved up from June to March 7, reasoning that citizens will feel more involved if they vote before the nomination is cinched.

Still, it is hard to imagine California stricken with voting fever. This is New Hampshire's thing. Voters here are so whipped up that fire marshals were turning them away from weekend campaign rallies; they are so studied they ponder the candidates right up to the bitter end.

Like Ron Richards, a building manager who was standing in line waiting for his ballot when someone asked who he was going to vote for.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Short pause. "I think."

Why rush? He still had 30 seconds left. He emerged from behind the curtain minutes later to report that he had indeed voted--for publisher Steve Forbes.

But one thing was never in doubt. He was going to vote.

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