Tight race prods voters to polls

Tuesday, November 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A too-close-for-comfort presidential race prodded voters across the country to the polls Tuesday, with many states reporting long lines and predicting high turnout.

But like everything with this election, nothing was set in stone.

More people voted Tuesday than in 1996, but fewer than in 1992, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. He estimated that 52 percent to 53 percent of Americans old enough to vote cast ballots.

In 1996, about 49 percent of those old enough to vote cast ballots _ the lowest turnout since 1924. In 1992, about 55 percent voted.

This time, some voters said they thought they mattered for the first time.

``It was no concern until now,'' said Angela Smith, 22, walking out of Allegheny County Election Court in Pennsylvania. ``But it's so close now that I had to register. I'm really for Al Gore. I think he's the man for all the people, and this time my vote will make a difference.''

Massive get-out-the-vote efforts in battleground states and the tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush appeared to push up turnout slightly in those states, including Florida, New Hampshire and Delaware, Gans said. States with lower voter turnout, such as Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kansas, didn't get as much attention from the candidates, he said.

Long lines and a shortage of booths, ballots and other equipment in Missouri prompted a circuit judge in St. Louis to order polls in the city to remain open three extra hours, until 10 p.m. But they were closed after about an hour on the order of a three-judge appeals court panel.

Nationwide, one in four voters came from a union household _ a constituency that helped Gore, according to exit polls. The union turnout was at least as large as in 1996. In Michigan, 400,000 auto workers had the day off and 42 percent of voters said they were from a union household. In Pennsylvania, it was 30 percent, according to exit polls.

``We came out en masse,'' said Pete Matthews, a union leader in Philadelphia awaiting results at a Gore hotel party. ``Our union held rallies, we walked sidewalks, phone banks, we called our members three times, held voter registration drives. We did everything we could because we knew how crucial this election was.''

The NAACP said it was spending $9 million to increase black voter turnout through issue ads and door-to-door campaigning. And black voters turned out at least as well as they did in 1996, if not better in some regions, including the South, according to exit polls. Gore was doing as least as well among black voters as President Clinton did that year.

Voters leaving the polls were interviewed by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and the television networks.

Jesse Jackson, who has campaigned for Gore to help energize black voters, said he traveled more in the last three months than in his own 1988 presidential bid.

``It's the most I've ever really campaigned,'' he said.

Fear of a Bush presidency motivated Dimondale, Mich., resident Sharon Gordon out of her bed with the flu and to the voting booth.

``I came out here because I didn't like how things were going,'' she said of the tight election.

Bad weather threatened turnout in some states, including New Mexico, where up to a foot of snow prevented poll workers from getting to their posts and snowplows were sent out to deliver ballots. Some New Mexico precincts had no electricity though voting machines had backup batteries. But poll workers and voters were forced to use lighters to see.

Some South Dakota schools canceled or delayed classes because of near-blizzard conditions, which had surprisingly little effect on turnout in Hughes County, said county Auditor Shellie Baker.

``It is blizzarding here. The visibility is bad. But our precinct at the courthouse has been busy all morning and they had a line when we opened,'' Baker said.

Casting a vote that could determine the next president is a heavy burden to carry. That's why Barbara Garwood didn't decide who to vote for until she walked into the polling booth in Orlando, Fla. She voted for Bush.

``When in doubt, I vote Republican,'' she said.