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In a ’50-50 Nation,’ Voter Applications Up Sharply

Times Staff Writers

As registration deadlines began to fall across the country Monday, election officials reported steep spikes in applications from new voters, and many said they planned to keep offices open until midnight in anticipation of a last-minute deluge.

Heightened interest in voter registration has been spurred in part by the contested presidential election here in Florida four years ago, when the outcome was decided by only 537 votes. In addition, both major parties and a host of activist groups have been signing up voters in battleground states in an effort to influence what is expected to be a close contest.

Registration deadlines came and went in more than a dozen states, with much of the rest of the nation scheduled to wrap up in the next week or two. (California’s deadline is Oct. 18.) Nearly 600,000 new voters registered in Florida since January, underscoring the fierce competition between President Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John F. Kerry.

In several key states, new registrations were pouring in. In Harrisburg, Pa., the secretary of state’s office stockpiled 6 million registration applications instead of the usual 4 million. In Michigan, 96% of the eligible electorate had registered to vote, compared with 93% in 2000.

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And Ohio officials said they had been swamped by applications from first-time voters.

“We are a 50-50 nation,” said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan organization that studies election reform. “In that environment, the possibility of razor-thin elections and a few votes making a difference is very likely.”

As experts debated whether the sharp rise in registration would translate into an increase in votes cast -- and which candidate those votes would benefit -- the electoral system showed signs of strain, with questions of registration irregularities arising in Florida and Wisconsin, among other states.

In Philadelphia, the largest city in Pennsylvania, the county voter registration administrator Bob Lee said more people had registered to vote this year than at any other time since 1983, when the city had a highly charged mayoral race.

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Lee said his office had processed 219,000 registrations since April 28, compared with 120,000 for the same period in 2000. He said that registrations were running 9 to 1 in favor of Democrats, with Republicans coming in third behind nonpartisans. “There’s a lot of applications from people who haven’t voted in 10 years,” he said. “It seems like every organization in the city is out there registering their members.”

Lee said that even people who knew they were registered were doing it again, just to be sure that they did not fall prey to the concerns that arose in Florida in 2000. “It’s hot and heavy here,” he said, adding that his office had been open seven days a week since mid-July to keep up with demand. “We’ve got people running all over the place.”

As Monday’s midnight deadline loomed in the battleground state of Florida, Democrats and Republicans maintained an atmosphere of mutual mistrust -- as both accused the other of irregularities in processing new voters.

Statistics from the Florida secretary of state’s website show that since 2000, Republicans have added 270,192 voters to the rolls as of August. Democrats added 264,762 during the same period. Democrats, though, still have the edge in total voter registration: As of August, 4.1 million voters were registered Democrats, 3.7 million registered Republicans.

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Monday also marked the deadline for new registrations in Ohio, where officials said they were swamped with applications by first-time voters.

“It’s a zoo. This is absolutely the craziest we’ve ever seen it,” said Dennis Predmore, elections specialist with the Board of Elections in Hamilton County, which encompasses Democratic-leaning Cincinnati and many of its strongly Republican suburbs.

The county has already processed 64,000 new registrations, more than double the figure in 2000, and has a backlog of several thousand more.

Some independent experts have predicted there would be as many as 600,000 new voters in Ohio, where the number of registered voters stood at about 7.3 million in May. But a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who oversees election matters, said it would probably be several days before the state had an official tally of new registrations.

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Although new registrations in Ohio seem to be running somewhat higher in Democratic-leaning urban areas than in the more Republican-friendly suburbs and rural areas, election experts caution that will not necessarily translate into higher turnout for Kerry on election day.

Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale University who has researched voter patterns, said people who took the time to register on their own had nearly a 70% turnout rate at the polls.

“But for people who are stopped in front of the supermarket to register, how likely are they to vote? I think that’s an entirely different number,” he said. “But how much less is unclear.”

With the race between Bush and Kerry so close, the Sunshine State could again prove decisive.

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In recent days, Florida Republicans have leveled charges that Democratic organizing groups are breaking the law in their rush to sign up new voters: registering known felons -- a violation of state law -- and in some cases registering the same person several times over.

And Democratic activists are questioning a state order that would-be applicants who failed to check a box attesting to their citizenship -- one of eight such boxes asking for different personal ballot registration information-- be rejected.

On Friday, Florida Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood warned that thousands of voters who registered with independent groups could be turned away from the polls because of such improperly filled-out forms.

“This whole thing is so ironic, but that word doesn’t begin to explain what’s been going on here with this state’s Department of Elections officials in the past few months,” said Allie Merzer, a spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party. “The Republicans are calling this ballot box issue a technical glitch. Remember, they won the presidency on a technical glitch.”

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Joe Agostini, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said one group had registered six convicted sex offenders in one Florida county.

“People are doing desperate things because the Democrats are in a desperate situation,” he said. “They may be able to register more people. But we’ve got to look beneath the surface to see who these people are.”

Glionna reported from Orlando, La Ganga from Los Angeles. Times staff writers J. Michael Kennedy and Sam Howe Verhovek contributed to this report.


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