Voter turnout on Nov. 7 is projected to be larger than normal for a midterm election. But that still means a minority of the electorate in most states will decide whether Democrats fulfill pollsters' predictions and win what could be big gains in Congress and state capitols.
Nationally, control of the U.S. House and possibly the U.S. Senate is on the line. At the state level, at least a dozen of the 36 governors' races on the ballot are competitive. In addition, 19 closely divided legislative chambers in 14 states are vulnerable to a swing in political control from one party to the other, according to political analysts. The importance of voter turnout is enhanced in close races.
The 2006 election will test whether the GOP retains its reputation for beating Democrats at getting their voters to the polls. It also will show whether more voters are enticed to cast ballots because of early voting now allowed in 15 states or because of 205 statewide ballot measures in 36 states.
But factors, besides apathy, could deter voters. Unprecedented changes in voting methods could snarl balloting in as many as 10 states, according to electionline.org, a nonpartisan research group that tracks states' voting procedures.
Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, seeking re-election in Maryland, has called on voters to avoid the polls on Election Day and vote absentee after thousands of plastic cards needed to vote on touch-screen machines were not delivered to the state's most populous county in the September primary. Election officials have received an unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots.
In addition, voters could be put off or confused because of ongoing legal battles over what form of identification can be required at the polls. Just under half of all states require some form of identification for voting this Nov. 7.
Historically, midterm elections have lower voter participation than presidential elections.
Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, said he projects "fairly high turnout" between 42.1 percent and 47 percent. His prediction falls between the levels of the 1982 midterm (42.1 percent) and the 1970 midterm (47 percent). In 2002, the most recent year without a presidential election, voter participation was 39.7 percent, according to the center.
The 2006 election resembles the midterm elections of 1994, 1974 and 1966, which were also referendums on the president and the direction of the country, said Gans. "This election is going to be a referendum on George Bush. We're looking at the potential for substantial party shifts all across the board — state legislatures, governors, Congress and some in the Senate," he said.
Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin historically have been among the leaders in voter turnout, while Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada and South Carolina tend to have lower levels of participation, Gans explained.
South Dakota, which has controversial topics on its ballot including abortion and medical marijuana, estimates a 72 percent turnout, compared with 71.5 percent in 2002, said Secretary of State Chris Nelson. South Dakota's high level of voter engagement contrasts with states such as Georgia, where the secretary of state projects that 48 percent of voters will head to the polls this year, compared with 54 percent in 2002.
States that rank high in voter turnout mostly are projecting single-digit increases in the numbers who cast ballots next week.
But Washington, one of only two states to allow mail-in ballots, is the exception with its prediction that it will have more than a 10 percent jump in voters this year, compared to the last midterm election in 2002.
In Washington, 34 of 39 counties vote by mail, and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed estimates 67 percent turnout, compared with 56.4 percent in 2002. In Oregon, where voting by mail is required, election officials project 71 percent compared with 69.1 percent in 2002.
Although absentee ballots and early or advance voting provide more methods for joining in the electoral process, election officials, analysts, and academics still debate whether these enhance turnout.
The impact of ballot initiatives on voter turnout is also a hot topic of debate. Caroline Tolbert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, and Daniel Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, have concluded from research covering the past 25 years that, on average, each initiative on a state's ballot increases turnout by about 1.8 percent in midterm elections. The effect, however, levels off at four measures.
In Ohio, for example, four measures on the ballot would suggest turnout might increase by 7 percent. About $30 million has been spent on the open governor's race there, and an additional $30 million on campaigns for the ballot measures, Tolbert said. "Just these four measures have doubled campaign spending in this state. How can this not affect the game?" she asked.
At least a third of all voters will be using new technology in the voting booth this election. Malfunctions, human error, and even supply shortages are potential hazards. Ten 10 states — Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington - are especially vulnerable to some kind of election snafu that could impede the voting process, according to electionline.org.
In many states, including Michigan and Ohio, both Democrats and Republicans have been busy collecting voter information to "target voters in a way they never could," said John Fortier, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. This approach has been used in combination with encouraging early voting as a way to lock in loyal voters, he explained.
Pollsters have identified three groups of key voters this year: enthusiastic, angry and intermittent.
Polls show that Democrats have cornered voter enthusiasm for this election, although a survey released the weekend before Election Day by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows a spurt in Republican enthusiasm.
Forty-two percent of Republicans are "more enthusiastic" about voting on Nov. 7, up from 33 percent in an Oct. 11 survey by the Pew Research Center conducted with The Associated Press. Still, 51 percent of Democrats rated themselves enthusiastic voters in both surveys, compared to 40 percent of Independents in the latest survey and 34 percent in the Oct. 11 survey.
In 2002, Republicans were more enthusiastic than Democratic voters, 44 percent to 40 percent.
Growth in Democratic anger as well as high levels of dissatisfaction with President Bush and Congress were also detected. The survey revealed that four times as many Democrats as Republicans said they were angry at government today.
Angry, negative motivations have a more powerful impact on turnout, so Democrats now are "the recipients of the political advantage from a sour public mood," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
And, as the election nears, both parties are scrambling to entice the "intermittent voters," people who are registered to vote but who don't always follow through, according to a survey released Oct. 18 by the Pew Research Center and The Associated Press. Intermittent voters, who account for 20 percent of the adult population, are "the most important 'swing' group in politics," according to the survey.
Meanwhile, independents have become "the growth stock" with a registration advantage in seven states --Alaska, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey, according to The Rhodes Cook Letter .
Certain groups are expected to remain on the sidelines in this election, including "large numbers of young people, Hispanics, and those with less education and lower incomes," according to the Oct. 18 Pew Research Center survey. However, a Nov. 1 poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics predicted that 18-to-24 year-olds will turn out in greater numbers than in any midterm election in the past two decades. The institute projected that 32 percent in that age group "definitely" would vote on Nov. 7. The previous record was 26.6% in 1982, according to the institute.
Arizona is experimenting with the lure of a $1 million prize to woo voters to the polls. Everyone who casts a vote in the 2006 primary and election would automatically be entered into a random drawing for the money provided that a ballot measure, Proposition 200, passes on Nov. 7. The measure would provide for a drawing every two years, funded largely by the Arizona Lottery.
This election's outreach efforts, targeted to both young and older voters, found a home on the Internet, where catchy domain names have become yet another tool for encouraging voter turnout. The National Association of Secretaries of State runs a Web site, www.canivote.com, to assist voters with registration, polling place, and voter ID questions. And the AARP made a splash with its Web site, www.dontvote.com , to encourage voters to research candidates' positions before heading to the polls.