Complacent voters greet Election Day

Herald news services

After months of posturing and weeks of escalating interest, it comes down to this: one marquee day in American democracy, the day the nation elects its 43rd leader.

From the first balloting in Dixville Notch, N.H., to that final vote cast way out in the Pacific Ocean, American voters will make the choice they must live with for the next four years. And in one of the closest presidential races in years, in a nation where the majority rules, the majority may well stay at home.

A record $3 billion is to be spent this year on elections that will determine who controls the White House, Senate and House of Representatives.

Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush are on the ballots in 50 states and the District of Columbia. Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, Reform candidate Pat Buchanan, Green candidate Ralph Nader, Constitution candidate Howard Phillips and Natural Law candidate John Hagelin are on ballots in more than two-thirds of the states.

Voters in 34 states will choose senators for six-year terms, all 435 House seats are up for election.

Governorships are at stake in 11 states. In 33 legislative chambers in 23 states, political control hangs on six seats or less; everywhere parties are hoping to strengthen their positions for next year’s redistricting of congressional districts.

And voters will decide more than 200 statewide ballot measures in 42 states.

This is America’s showcase election, yet scores of interviews with would-be voters and staunch nonvoters this past weekend suggest a cantankerous electorate. For every person who passionately defends the democratic institution of voting, it’s easy to find another who thinks the whole thing’s pointless.

Granted, the two candidates aren’t polar political opposites. And the relative placidity of the past decade — in terms of the economy and the lack of major global conflict, at least — hasn’t exactly framed this election as a do-or-die event.

"The country has been rather comfortable for the last eight years," says Win Moses, a state legislator from Fort Wayne, Ind. "I don’t feel the urgency I have felt in some previous races. We have a fine choice between two basically good people who have different directions they want to lead America in prosperous times."

Both candidates on Monday campaigned into the final hours, seeking last-minute momentum.

Gore anticipated a long count on Election Night, and joked that his first meal as president-elect would probably be breakfast. "But I’m going to make it a Happy Meal from McDonald’s," he told an Iowa audience.

Beginning in Iowa, Gore embarked on a 30-hour nonstop journey that led to Missouri, Michigan and Florida before flying home early Tthis morning to Nashville, Tenn.

In Florida, Bush was confident he would return Republicans to the presidency lost by his father in 1992.

As Bush boarded his plane in Orlando, Fla., Monday morning, he said, "The last day —_ I’m excited about it. We’ve laid the groundwork for victory. Now it’s just getting people to the polls.”

Bush’s schedule projected his confidence: from Gore’s home state of Tennessee, he flew to Wisconsin, Iowa and Arkansas, four states that President Clinton carried twice, before returning to his residence in Austin, Texas.

Their running mates were busy Monday, too.

"Go door to door and keep working the phone banks," Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney told volunteers in Nevada.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running mate, placed get-out-the-vote calls in Minneapolis. "Hey Marie, believe it or not, this is Joe Lieberman. I am running for vice president," he told one skeptical voter.

Leading researchers say that voter turnout in today’s presidential election will be close to the 1996 level, when fewer than half the eligible voters went to the polls.

Experts attributed the anticipated low turnout to negative advertising and no galvanizing issues in an era of prosperity and peace.

But Michael Birkner, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, predicts the very closeness of the presidential race will draw people to the polls.

And, he said, don’t factor out patriotism — even among some of those who grouse about being disenchanted.

"People get up on Election Day and they feel a tingle when they go over and wait on line to vote," Birkner said. "Americans are very proud of their 200-year-old democracy. I think the majesty of presidential elections survives."

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