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DECISION 2000

Voters Mob Polls to Help Tip Scales in Tight Election

Turnout: Costly drives to encourage balloting work as electorate braves long lines, bad weather.

November 08, 2000|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — From Florida to Pennsylvania to Missouri to California, voter turnout Tuesday was surprisingly strong--fueled by one of the closest races in the last century and one of the most expensive get-out-the-vote drives ever.

Although analysts had predicted a "fairly low" showing nationally, in state after state voters stood in lines for up to three hours and made heroic treks to cast their ballots in a whisker-close election where turnout was key.

A circuit judge in Missouri -- a state that had been too close to call Tuesday -- ordered polls to remain open until 10 p.m. as lines stretched around city blocks in what officials said was shaping up to be a record turnout. In Alabama, workers in some precincts worried about running out of ballots.

The higher-than-expected turnout defied recent opinion polls showing low voter interest in the election. Experts attributed the election day enthusiasm to the allure of a close race.

"Any increase in turnout is due to people feeling in the last minute that the campaign mattered to them. Toward the end, they responded to the closeness of the campaign," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.

California appeared to be on track for the highest turnout in 20 years as Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Mateo counties noticed voter responses exceeding those of 1996--much of it fueled by an aggressive turnout drive and the possibility that, in a race so tight, every vote might actually count.

"Californians woke up this morning, and all news reports said [the election] was too close to call. Nothing is predetermined. They knew they could make a difference," said Beth Miller, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Firm numbers on voter turnout would not be available until today, so election officials were left to rely on a patchwork of anecdotes from across the nation. Analysts cautioned that it was foolish to extrapolate before the polls closed, and with record numbers of absentee ballots uncounted.

Indeed, it was unclear whether voters in states where the leading candidates did little campaigning would turn out in force. Still, some voting officials could not control their enthusiasm at the suggestion that the relentless, decades-long rise in voter apathy might have turned.

"We have some reports of lines 1 1/2 hours long, which is unheard of," Missouri Secretary of State Bekki Cook said in the mid-afternoon.

While turnout is always important for the nation's democratic well-being, in a race this close it was crucial. The candidates and their families worked to the end to squeeze out every last vote.

In the critical state of Pennsylvania, Vice President Al Gore and running mate Joseph I. Lieberman made special TV pleas to voters via satellite, their messages carried on 5 p.m. newscasts. In the late afternoon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived on a chartered airplane to rally voters in Philadelphia's inner city. Jackson quickly headed to a key intersection in a black neighborhood to energize residents to come out to vote for Gore.

"It was so easy to motivate people when they were in a battleground state," said Mardee Xifaras, state director for the Gore-Lieberman campaign. "They really got it in terms of the importance of their work."

Before the night was over, Gore had captured the state.

In St. Louis, high turnout coupled with inaccurate voter registration lists slowed down the process. Democratic officials secured a federal court order to keep the polls open an extra three hours, but an appellate judge overturned it. In the end, polls there stayed open an extra 45 minutes to an hour to accommodate all voters in line at closing time.

By Tuesday's end, as much as $250 million was expected to be spent by campaigns and independent groups on get-out-the-vote efforts, Gans said.

But the energy was hardly distributed evenly, with the candidates concentrating their final pushes on a handful of swing states and all but ignoring those solidly in their respective corners.

"We have a lot of energy going into battleground states, which could propel turnout upward in at least some them," Gans said. "But that might be [offset] by states that have hardly seen a lawn sign, bumper sticker or TV commercial for either campaign."

For all the high-tech wizardry of computerized phone banks and the Internet, the voter turnout drive relied mostly on old-fashioned leaflets and door-knocking. The GOP's Victory 2000 effort in California set out to contact five times as many voters as in 1996. In the campaign's final weekend, the party hung notices on 1.5 million doorknobs.

"The irony is we live in the age of the global village, and the campaigns and parties still spend tens of millions of dollars on some of the most old-fashioned forms of voter turnout," said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.

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Times staff writers Geoff Boucher, Eric Bailey, Doyle McManus, Alissa J. Rubin and Stephanie Simon, and researchers John Beckham and Edith Stanley contributed to this story.

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