US Presidential Elections: Texas, the easiest place on the planet to vote

The big day has arrived at last, reports Elaine Davenport
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The Independent Online
AUSTIN - Election day has arrived. I'll cycle to my precinct's polling place at the local elementary school today, present my voter registration card, choose from several identical ballots arrayed on a table, go to a private cubicle, pick up the special soft-leaded pencil and start filling in the ovals. That's what all the fuss has been about for the past 10 weeks, if not four years.

An interesting wrinkle is that I could show up with no identification, say I was someone else, and if the name matched the list of registered voters, I would be given a ballot paper. "The poll workers are not there to stop people from voting," said a local election official. "Any fraud would be determined later." By whom, I wonder.

First on my ballot paper is the chance to cast a straight-party vote, choosing Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Natural Law or US Taxpayers. The three non-mainstream parties are a mystery to most voters. The Libertarian Party, one of the country's most viable third parties along with Ross Perot's Reform Party, wants government out of all aspects of life except the military, police and prisons and would eliminate income tax. The Natural Law Party believes good government can be achieved through science and transcendental meditation. The US Taxpayers Party, just four years old, courted Pat Buchanan as its presidential candidate because of his ultra-conservative views.

If I skip the straight-party option, my first vote is for president and vice-president. I can write in a name in this category, meaning that I can add a name - any name - of my choice on the line provided. The Texas polls are showing a statistical dead-heat between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. That the race should be this close is unusual in a state that has not given its 32 electoral votes (only California, with 54, and New York, with 33, have more) to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.

Then I make a choice for a US senator. Most agree that Phil Gramm, Republican, who is 22 points ahead in the polls over Victor Morales, Democract, will win. But if Republicans stay home because Bob Dole is behind in the presidential polls, Mr Gramm may lose his edge. However, Latinos - a record 1.6 million are registered this year in Texas - are said to have a higher-than-usual interest in Mr Morales' historic attempt to become the state's first Latino senator, and a greater percentage than usual may vote. On the other hand, Mr Clinton's lead in the national polls may keep Democrats at home. To encourage Democrats, Mr Clinton spent two days last week campaigning in El Paso and San Antonio, cities with large Latino populations.

Whichever party I choose for president and US senator theoretically will pull me through the rest of the ballot as I vote for a US representative, judges, state officers, education officials and county officers.

Texas has a record number of registered voters this year - more than 10 million. Election officials say that here in Travis County, 96 per cent of eligible adults are registered. This high number is due to the National Voter Registration Act - known as "motor voter" - which began in 1995 and has allowed voters to register at driving licence offices and other state premises. Also, activists have spent recent years begging and prodding the state's minorities to register.

But registration is one thing and voting is another. Volunteers for the parties and candidates will spend today on the phone reminding registered voters to go to the polls or providing transport.

"It's easier to vote in Texas than anywhere else on the planet," said Nelda Wells Spears, the county's Voter Registrar. Early voting by mail was available for anyone disabled, over 65, in jail or who would be out of the county for the entire early voting period and on election day.

Early voting in person (no need to provide a reason, as in some other states) was available for 17 days at 16 locations in the county, including one drive-through for the physically challenged, where a sign read "Just Honk and We'll Be Out To Serve You".