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Tight Races Convince Many That Participation Is Important

Voters: A sense of empowerment sends a divided electorate to the polls, although some remain uninspired to the end by the presidential candidates.


Energized by the closest presidential race in 40 years and a sense of urgency on issues from public schools to the Supreme Court, voters streamed to polls across Southern California on Tuesday, convinced that their choices might make a difference.

From East Los Angeles to Beverly Hills, and Pacoima to Oxnard, voters of varying ages, parties and beliefs said they felt empowered by the tight presidential contest. They said they were inspired by a host of hard-fought races and ballot measures, particularly the statewide proposition on school vouchers.

"I've voted every time I could, but it's exciting to think that this time it actually makes a difference," said Michelle Mapel, a 29-year-old Web site developer. She cast her ballot--topped by Republican George W. Bush--at the venerable San Marino Women's Club.

Some Undecided Almost to the End

But some, wavering until the last possible minute, seemed to reflect the deep divisions in the electorate. Mary Lanford, a 43-year-old actress from Sherman Oaks, said she made up her mind for Bush only after she stepped into the voting booth.

In the West Adams district of Los Angeles, southwest of downtown, Latino and African Americans were casting ballots overwhelmingly for Democrat Al Gore.

"I want Gore to win," said Dorothy Stansell, an 82-year-old retired county welfare office supervisor. "The last eight years, we've really had it good."

Others were considerably less inspired by the presidential race and the election overall.

At the Boys and Girls Club in north Long Beach, for instance, Jerry and Helen Savell, who described themselves as longtime Democrats, said they voted for Gore, but without enthusiasm.

Jerry Savell, a 64-year-old retired steamfitter, said he saw the Democratic candidate as the "lesser of two evils."

"This is not like a Kennedy thing," Helen Savell added, as her husband sadly decried what he called a shortage of real leaders in politics today.

Still others, including Pasadena City College freshman John Ethan Goodrich, 18, said they didn't vote, convinced that their ballots hardly mattered.

"I kinda trust everyone else to make the decision," Goodrich said. "Right now, I'm thinking of my own life."

Elsewhere, from an elegant ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel to a mobile home park in Carson, voters across ethnic and social strata--and in larger numbers than in recent years--celebrated their democracy by casting ballots.

Emerging from the polling place at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a jovial Jay Leno signed autographs for eager fans Tuesday morning but demurred when asked to disclose how he had voted in the presidential contest.

"I would never say that," Leno said. If he did, the comedian said, whenever he wanted to joke about the other major political party or candidates, he'd be "suddenly suspect."

Voters were less coy at the Avalon Mobile Estates in Carson, eagerly discussing their votes in the dining hall of the park for residents older than 55.

Retired nurse Ozzie Clark, 81, said she voted for Democrats across the board.

"I was brought up a Democrat, so everything behind Democrat, I usually punch--regardless of what they say on the talk shows," Clark said.

Along with the presidential race, many said they were moved to vote by the statewide initiative on school vouchers, which would authorize payments of at least $4,000 per pupil to use for private schools. Most of those interviewed said they voted against the measure.

In Oxnard, Ann Contreras, 78, said she was upset by the initiative, Proposition 38. "That's a no, no," Contreras said. "Don't take the money away from a poor kid and give it to private schools."

Contreras, a retired respiratory therapist, said she had bucked her Republican loyalties to cast a protest vote for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

"I don't like the way those other two wouldn't let him debate. Nadar's more or less the one that makes you think," she said.

But others, such as Veronica Pacheco of Alhambra, said they decided against a Nader vote, fearful that it would not be prudent in such a tight presidential race.

"I felt Nader had good views, but in this country there are really only two choices, and by voting for Nader it's more likely people will vote in a Republican, which I really don't want," said Pacheco, explaining her vote for Gore.

Pacheco, 34, said her vote for the Democrat was reluctant, because "the No. 1 issue is government needs to be more representative of different classes, and Gore and Bush are both from very rich backgrounds. They're not exactly representing the little people."

Others, including Long Beach longshoreman Tommy Williams, 28, said their presidential votes turned on concerns about the makeup of the Supreme Court, particularly under a possible Bush presidency.

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