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California Election Chief Predicts Big Voter Turnout


SACRAMENTO — California's chief election officer predicts 76% of the state's registered voters will cast ballots in Tuesday's election, boosting turnout to the highest level since 1980.

Secretary of State Bill Jones said Wednesday that voters are motivated this year by the neck-and-neck presidential campaign and several hotly contested congressional races.

"The message is, people are interested," Jones told a Capitol news conference. With the tight race for the Oval Office, he added, "California matters" and that's a big draw for those voters who only come out for "a horse race."

The turnout prediction follows an announcement last week that a record 15.7 million Californians have registered to vote. More than 40,000 of them used the state's new online registration service, and others took advantage of drive-through registration stations at places such as the Hollywood Bowl.

Forty-five percent of California voters are registered as Democrats, 35% are Republicans and 14% declined to state a party preference.

If Jones' prediction holds true, the 76% turnout would be 10% higher than the last presidential election in 1996 and the highest since 1980. That year, 77% of California's registered voters cast ballots as former California Gov. Ronald Reagan ousted President Carter.

Jones said his forecast is based on historical trends, the political dynamics of a given year and requests for absentee ballots.

County registrars say such requests are breaking records this year, and Jones said absentees might account for 30% of the vote, up from 20% in the 1996 election. In Los Angeles County, 620,000 people requested an absentee ballot this year, up from 452,000 in 1996.

Jones frets that East Coast-based television networks could declare a presidential winner before the polls close in the West, creating a chilling effect on California voters.

Research on voting patterns suggests that as many as 5% of voters in California and seven other Western states stayed home in 1996 after TV pundits named Bill Clinton the winner at 6 p.m. Pacific time, two hours before the polls closed. While those lost votes had no effect on the presidential race, experts believe they might have influenced congressional or statewide contests.

In the 1980s, 53 California races were decided by 3 percentage points or less, suggesting that discouraged voters might have made a difference had the networks stayed silent.

"In the pressure to try to one up each other, the national media outlets in the East have a desire to jump the gun" and declare a winner, Jones said.

Jones has drafted a letter urging the networks to keep quiet. Officials at NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN said the tight race makes it unlikely the presidential winner will be known before California's polls close. But if Al Gore or George W. Bush pulls decisively ahead before then, the networks have an obligation to report it, they agreed.

"If, based on the electoral map of the entire United States, there's a clear winner in the presidential race, it's our duty to report what we know," said Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC spokesman in New York.


Signing Up and Turning Out

Secretary of State Bill Jones predicts 76% of California's registered voters will cast ballots Tuesday, boosting turnout to the highest level in 20 years. Jones says voters are motivated this year because of the tight presidential race and competitive contests for several congressional seats. His prediction is an educated guess that has been fairly accurate in years past.


Californians registered to vote Voter turnout 1976 9,980,488 82% 1980 11,361,623 77% 1984 13,073,630 75% 1988 14,004,873 73% 1992 15,101,473 75% 1996 15,662,075 66% 2000 15,707,259 (est.) 76%


Source: California secretary of state

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