Nail-biting finale could enthuse apathetic voters

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The Independent US

Despite the conventional wisdom that voter apathy increases with every US presidential election, there are signs that tomorrow's nail-bitingly close face-off between Al Gore and George W Bush could produce an unexpectedly high turn-out, possibly the highest in 20 years.

Despite the conventional wisdom that voter apathy increases with every US presidential election, there are signs that tomorrow's nail-bitingly close face-off between Al Gore and George W Bush could produce an unexpectedly high turn-out, possibly the highest in 20 years.

State and party officials in at least five states - California, Texas, Virginia, Ohio and New York - say the high stakes and uncertain outcome of this year's race are galvanising both the rank-and-file electorate and organised get-out-the-vote initiatives.

The fact that control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives hangs by a thread is only intensifying interest. So too is the candidacy of Ralph Nader, whose presidential run on the Green Party ticket is attracting many disenchanted voters who might otherwise not bother to go to the polls.

Predictions of voter turn-out are notoriously fickle but most analysts agree this year should easily outshine 1996, when the numbers dipped below 50 per cent for the first time in US history. Turn-out could surpass 1992, the year Bill Clinton was first elected, and might even equal or improve on 1980, the year Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.

Last week, the Secretary of State of California, Bill Jones, predicted a record turn-out in his state of 76 per cent - more than 10 percentage points higher than four years ago. He based this on the strength of postal ballots already returned, requests for absentee ballots and record figures for voter registration.

Other traditional high-turn-out states hinted at a similar picture. In Virginia, both Democrats and Republicans predicted "higher than normal" turn-out somewhere around 75 per cent, partly because of a closely contested Senate race there. In New York, all eyes will be on the Senate race in which Hillary Clinton, the First Lady, has sharply polarised public opinion - and interest is expected to rise accordingly. Ohio officials are talking about 70 per cent - higher than 1996 but less than 1992.

Perhaps the most surprising statistics came from the El Paso region in Texas - a state with no closely contested races and a traditionally poor record for turn-out. The Democratic Party said first indications showed postal ballot returns were up 55 per cent on 1996.

Not everybody agrees that the trend looks positive. Curtis Gans, of the Washington-based committee for the study of the American electorate, said increased interest in the battleground states would be offset by near total indifference elsewhere. "We're still around where we were in 1996," he said. "None of the underlying reasons for falling turn-out have been addressed." Those reasons, according to groups such as his, are principally to do with the increasing influence of corporate money in elections and the perception that ordinary people are being shut out of the equation. That point of view was echoed by the Supreme Court justice David Souter last year in a ruling in which he upheld the right of states to limit campaign contributions, saying the move was good for democratic participation.

Some things have changed since 1996, however. Bureaucratic obstacles to voter registration have been lifted thanks to the internet and so-called "motor voter" schemes that link registration to address changes on people's driving licences.

Unlike Mr Clinton's easy romp against Bob Dole four years ago, the Gore-Bush contest remains too close to call and both sides are insisting that every vote will count.

The Republicans are so hungry for victory that groups, from the National Rifle Association to the Christian Coalition, are knocking on doors and manning phone banks; on the other side, union organisers have mobilised for the Democrats.

Will any of this make a difference, and if so who will it favour? Traditionally, a high turn-out helps Democrats but there are no guarantees that will be the case this time.

One big determining factor could be the weather - a notoriously tough indicator to interpret in a country this huge and varied. If it's sunny in the western state of Washington but raining in the East, that could be good news for Al Gore. On the other hand, maybe George W doesn't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.

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