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The Battle For Newbie Voters

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

As voter registration deadlines neared expiration in 16 states Monday night, officials projected a record number of new voters would participate in this year's election.

Officials in the key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are working overtime to crosscheck forms in time for Election Day. National organizations say they have reached more Americans than ever. And the two major parties are battling to snare more new voters for their side.

Though half of those who registered in recent decades have ended up not voting, experts expect this year's newly registered voters to break the trend. Voting analysts are increasingly optimistic that turnout in 2004 will challenge the peak level of 1960.

"I think this will be the highest turnout in modern times," says David Leland, who heads the nonpartisan Project Vote. "We expect it because of high interest, the activity of so many groups and this election being so important."

Leland's organization has registered more than 1,100,000 new voters, at least 70,000 this past week alone. There is no accurate breakdown on national registration, but both Democrats and Republicans assert they have won the fight for new voters.

An analysis of county-by-county data by The New York Times, published Sept. 26, showed that new registrations for Democrats have risen 250 percent since January, compared to the same period in 2000. Republicans, the Times found, increased their registrations by 25 percent over the same time span.

When John F. Kennedy won a nail-biter over Richard Nixon in 1960, fully 62.8 percent of registered voters turned out. Since 1972, that number has waffled from between 55 percent and 49 percent, with 51 percent turnout in 2000.

"It is has been embarrassing for the last 50 years to see the number of voters shrinking," Leland says. "A democracy is only as strong as the number of people who participate."

With registration offices open until midnight in cities from Miami to Philadelphia, organizations are making a last-ditch effort to register voters.

In other states, deadlines run much later. Though voters must register by Monday night in Michigan, in neighboring Wisconsin they are allowed to register right up to Election Day.

With controversial issues like same-sex marriage likely to be influenced by who wins the White House, socially conservative groups like Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention are weighing in, with buses on the ground and voter registration forms available online.

The N.A.A.C.P. has declared the empowerment of African American voters as its chief priority until Election Day. The League of Woman Voters, also hoping for record turnout, is emphasizing how presidential issues affect women.

Although these organizations must remain technically nonpartisan, their effectiveness is being closely watched by both political parties.

It is generally assumed that a significant rise in turnout by African Americans or women, especially single women, will benefit Democrats. If socially conservative groups can gather the estimated 4 million evangelicals who didn't vote in 2000, but did in 1996, it should benefit Republicans.

And all involved agree: in this head-to-head presidential contest the deciding factor may be a party's ability to get their base out to the polls.

Both parties are gearing up legal teams in the event of recounts or electoral improprieties on Nov. 2. The Democrats have organized on the national level; Republicans have done so within state parties.

Once registration ends Monday at midnight, the focus of the two parties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida will shift from registering voters to readying them to turn out.

Though estimates of new registered voters are elusive until weeks after the deadlines pass, other indicators contribute to the notion that turnout will be higher than ever. Not the least of these came last Thursday night, when at least 15 million more viewers watched the first presidential debate than did in 2000.

"Certainly, based on my travels and talking with league members and other organizations everything is pointing in that direction," says Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Woman Voters.

"If we can just break the downward trend in registration," Maxell says hopefully, "the turnaround in turnout should happen, but we have to wait to see what the voters do."

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