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New voters may be election wild card
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Sudent Michael Corbett registers to vote. He's voted before in St. Louis, but not in Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
October 12 is the deadline for Minnesotans to pre-register to vote. Anyone not registered by 5 p.m. will have to wait until election day to register at the polls. Registration cards have been streaming into county election offices around the state. Many of them are from new voters, raising questions about how that will affect the outcome of the presidential race.

St. Paul, Minn. — Over the noon hour one day last week, Democrats fanned out across the University of Minnesota to register voters.

The president of the College Democrats, Chris Montana, says Democrats have registered thousands of new voters on college campuses across the state. He says college students are energized about the presidential election.

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"It used to be fashionable to not have an opinion. Now it's unfashionable to not have an opinion. Everyone has a stake in this election, and it definitely is reflected on the college campuses," he said.

Montana says college students haven't traditionally been a force at the polls. But he says they saw how close the 2000 presidential election was, and realized their vote does count.

Montana says he believes an overwhelming majority of Minnesota college students will vote for Democrat John Kerry, because of issues such as education, the war in Iraq and the economy.

The chair of the College Republicans, Jake Grassel, disagrees.

"We've seen the support that the president has on campus simply by going to the campus, talking to voters, registering voters, and now when we work to get them out to vote," according to Grassel.

Grassel says President George Bush's positions on homeland security, the economy and domestic issues such as Social Security reform resonate with young people. He says College Republicans have registered 7,000 Minnesota college students, and are encouraging them to vote absentee so they can volunteer on election day.

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College students aren't the only group of new voters being targeted by the numerous voter registration drives across the state. Groups ranging from America Coming Together to Minnesota ACORN are working to register low-income voters and minorities -- groups that historically vote Democrat -- in record numbers.

Hennepin County Attorney Amy Kloubuchar told College Democrats that all of the activity bodes well for Kerry. She says Democratic-leaning parts of the country have been registering new voters in higher numbers than more Republican areas.

"I think Minnesota of any other state knows that when you look at the polls -- and the polls aren't bad here for Kerry-Edwards -- but when you look at the polls, that's not the only clue. Because we know when we elected Jesse Ventura, we know that no pollster predicted that was going to happen. Why did that happen? It happened because of new voters," she said.

Ventura was elected governor in 1998 with 37 percent of the vote, but no poll showed him with more than 27 percent support. Pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research acknowledges that the polls didn't fully capture Ventura's ascent in 1998. Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press use Mason-Dixon for their polling.

Coker says he doesn't think this election has anything like the Ventura phenomenon.

"There will be some people who show up on election day and register and vote, and chances are we probably won't get some of those in our poll, but I'm not terribly worried about it skewing things," he said. "I don't know that there's any evidence that the people who are going to show up on election day are more likely to vote for Kerry or more likely to vote for Bush, it's probably a wash."

Coker says Mason-Dixon polls don't include people who aren't registered, or people who aren't currently living in Minnesota. That would exclude military and overseas voters, who are requesting absentee ballots in record numbers according to many county election officials. Military voters tend to vote Republican, while other absentee voters who responded to an MPR query on the issue said they were planning to vote for Kerry.

Coker says a high number of absentee voters could swing the election results a couple of percentage points either way. Still, that could be enough to make a difference in a close race. The last MPR-Pioneer Press poll showed Bush and Kerry just two points apart.

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