Voters head to the polls

by Megh Duwadi | 11/5/02 6:00am

A race as politically split as the nation itself -- one that has so far unseated a diehard conservative incumbent, drawn in millions of dollars in donations and garnered the nation's attention -- will be decided in time for tonight's 10 o'clock news.

Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, lagging in the polls only two weeks ago, spent the last stretch of her campaign crisscrossing the state to mobilize her constituency. The race between Shaheen and her opponent, Rep. John E. Sununu, R-N.H., is currently locked in a statistical dead heat.

"The governor is reaching out to undecided voters, rallying her supporters and volunteers on the campaign," said her press secretary Colin Van Ostern. "Just a difference of a few dozen votes could decide the race."

Indeed, New Hampshire's race is one of only a handful this year considered to be contested. With the balance of the Senate in such a precarious position -- yesterday's appointment of Independence Party member Dean Barkley to fill the seat of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., makes 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents -- the entire nation is keeping close watch on the choice that Granite Staters make.

Representatives for both candidates maintained, however, that the race isn't about maintaining or tipping this narrow partisan division, but about New Hampshire's needs.

Voters in Hanover also decide today who will represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the statehouse. Incumbent Rep. Charles Bass '74, R-N.H., led Democrat Katrina Swett 58 percent to 36 percent in a poll released yesterday conducted by the American Research Group. The poll also showed Republican Craig Benson enjoying a 15-point lead against Democratic state Sen. Mark Fernald.

Republican National Committee spokesperson Dan Ronayne said he was confident that his party would fare well in today's elections, while acknowledging that the Senate race's outcome will undoubtedly be "very close."

"We think that people will appreciate the leadership of John Sununu and the other Republican candidates on the ballot and come out to vote," Ronayne said. "There is a very high enthusiasm for our candidates this year."

That enthusiasm, however, has reached a greater pitch in the rest of New Hampshire as compared to the traditionally Democratic Upper Valley. Despite $5 million spent by the GOP and multiple visits by President George W. Bush to New Hampshire in Sununu's support, the representative has largely ignored Hanover and its surrounding environs. At Dartmouth, the College Republicans' campaign for Sununu has been markedly less visible than the Young Democrats' efforts to elect Shaheen.

The Young Dems have launched a massive drive to get Dartmouth students to register to vote in New Hampshire. The organization is also helping to coordinate a student shuttle today between the Green and the polling stations at Richmond Middle School, located adjacent to Hanover High School.

"We'll have people at the Hop, Collis and Thayer all day long with guides to voting and instructions on how you can get to the polls," Young Dems president Vikash Reddy '05 said. "I think we'll win the Senate race, but it'll be extremely close."

The College Republicans will also operate a shuttle service today, according to member Matthew Raymer '03.

New Hampshire's policy of same-day registration enables all Dartmouth students over 18 who have not voted elsewhere to do so today. But while state elections officials expect high voter turnout because of the profile of the Senate race, national turnout will remain low, political analysts predicted.

"In terms of voter turnout, there's not much to suggest that it will be historic by any means," Brookings Institution senior fellow Sara Binder said. "It will be one-third of the electorate, at best."

Certain hotly-contested races, including those for the New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Jersey Senate seats, may spark more excitement among voters, Binder said.

Elections officials have also paid careful attention to the streamlining of voting procedures to avoid a recap of balloting fiascoes experienced in 2000, she said.

Rockefeller Center Director Linda Fowler added that mobilization efforts targeting certain types of voters -- including evangelical Christians, women and African-Americans -- have also occurred in various regions of the nation, but that most people still do not feel compelled to vote.

"I think that the people who will go to the polls are the ones that are habitual voters," Fowler said. "I don't think there is a galvanizing issue. This is a niche election."

Government Professor Ronald Shaiko cited voters' "bombardment" by negative advertising this year as a reason why people may stay away from the polls, while adding that both parties' failure to properly address the nation's economic trouble has only added to voter confusion about which candidates to choose.

"[Voters] know it's a problem, but they don't find that this electoral cycle is really helping them to resolve that problem," Shaiko said.

A more pertinent issue for the student population, Shaiko said, is the possibility of war on Iraq.

Key issues among the general population include education, health care, Social Security and, to a lesser extent, taxes, Binder said.

Because of candidates' unwillingness to address Iraq and the issue's broad bipartisan support, it remains a largely undebated topic, she added.

Iraq and the ongoing war on terror have kept President Bush's approval ratings extremely high, thereby bucking the trend of midterm elections losses for the president's party. The Republican Party is expected to gain some ground in the House of Representatives, where they currently hold a 15-person majority. All House seats are up for election this year.

A six-seat gain by the Democrats -- what they would need to take control of the House -- is unlikely, Binder and Shaiko said.

The Senate, with tight, high-profile races in New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota, among others, is much more difficult to call.

Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election today. Twenty are currently occupied by Republicans, 13 by Democrats and one by an independent.

Voters in Hanover can cast their ballots today from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Richmond Middle School gymnasium.