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Gary Younge
The road to the courts

The fact that the vote has already proved to be anything but free and fair means that Wednesday could look less like the end of Armageddon and more like the beginning of purgatory. Lawyers are accumulating in almost as great a number as the tales of voter suppression, intimidation and obstruction. In Florida's heavily Democratic Broward county, 60,000 absentee ballots have gone missing. In Georgia's Atkinson county, 78% of the registered Hispanic voters were summoned to the county courthouse on Thursday to defend their right to vote after allegations that they were not US citizens. The Board of Registrars there dismissed the complaint. "The challenges ... are legally insufficient because they are based solely on race," said the county attorney, Russ Gillis. "Those of you who are here because you were challenged, go to the polls Tuesday and vote."

But the message had already been sent. Tomorrow polling booths will not be the place where the partisan conflicts of this polarised nation will be settled but, in all likelihood, where they will escalate before heading to the courts. The results may be within the margin of error, but the outcome could well be determined by the margin of litigation.

The fact that a country wealthy enough to regularly send people into space should have such trouble sending someone to the White House every four years with a modicum of democratic legitimacy is pitiful. But the problems are more political than logistical. The Republicans want to stop as many people voting as they possibly can. On Tuesday they will be sending supporters to the polls and courts to challenge those they say are improperly registered. Democrats are keen to see as many people vote as possible, and are sending supporters to the polls to ensure that no legitimate voter is turned away. This is not because of the Democrats' love of the democratic process - although on balance they have proved themselves far more wedded to the spirit and letter of it than the Republicans. But because the higher the turnout, the greater the likelihood that Kerry will emerge the victor.

With just 24 hours to go there is nobody left for Kerry to woo. At this stage, his victory or defeat will hinge on whom his machine can get to the polls and whether their votes will count when they get there. To understand why this is more crucial for Kerry than for Bush, it helps to understand the election as a three-phase process: registration, mobilisation and verification.

The Democrats have already won the first round. Thanks to everyone from P Diddy to Michael Moore, this year has seen an unprecedented number of new voters registered, which could produce the highest turnout of those eligible in more than 40 years. In Ohio, where the Republicans won by just 165,019 votes in 2000, there are 700,000 new voters on the rolls. More than 60% of those are believed to be Democrats. In Florida, which Democrats lost by just 537 votes in 2000, more than a million have been added since February, with Democrats boasting almost 45,000 more than Republicans. Many of these are first time voters; a huge portion are young, black and/or poor. Kerry has a sizeable advantage among each of these groups. In the past, they have also been the groups least likely to vote. But this year, thanks to issues like the war, the draft and the supreme court, they claim to be particularly stirred. Almost three-quarters of college students say they will definitely vote this year.

This is partly why the polls have been so erratic. Most measure "likely voters", which excludes most first timers; and none polls people who only use cellphones, excluding large numbers of young people. The bottom line is that this huge new batch of voters is a wild card. This is not because there is no way of knowing how they will vote, but because there is no indication of whether they will vote. Moreover, those who have never voted before will make up a huge proportion of those who turn up in the wrong place or with insufficient ID and end up having their credentials questioned. They could play big; they could not play at all; and they may turn up to find Republicans playing dirty.

Which brings us to the second phase, which has been under way for the past couple weeks and will culminate tomorrow - mobilising that soft support into hard votes. Here the prognosis for Kerry is mixed. While Bush has pursued a strategy of galvanising his base, Kerry has reached out to the few undecideds in the centre. Arguably, both approaches have their merits. But one of the downsides for Kerry is that he has done little to energise his core support. The extent to which they are motivated is by their hatred for Bush, not their love for him.

African Americans, a crucial Democratic constituency, appear particularly ambivalent. At a meeting with black clergy in Philadelphia last month a Floridian minister, Rudolph McKissick, asked Kerry what he was going to do "to ignite some excitement and energy in the black community". After a few pat responses, Kerry admitted: "I'll be honest, I don't know what some of you are waiting for." Whatever it is, some black Americans have grown tired of hanging around for it.

But while the political will might be weak, the tried and tested organisational structures to mobilise support have proved effective. Early voting - 30 states have already opened the polls - has been heavy in Democrat areas and, thanks to unions and black churches, they have a proven capable machine on the day. Add the new get-out-the-vote organisations friendly to Democrats and the operation begins to look formi dable. This is precisely why the Republicans have been more brazen in their attempts to block the vote.

Which brings us to phase three - verification. Fully aware of what is at stake, the Republicans' best hope is to suppress at the polls and then challenge in the courts. Their dominance in local government, where many of the initial decisions regarding voting rights are heard, means Democrats will always be fighting an uphill battle here.

Kerry must hope that it doesn't get this far. The Democrats have a far larger potential base than Republicans, but it is also less motivated. Those he was unable to excite to the polls through persuasion he must hope to get there through sheer organisation. If the result isn't close, then the Republicans cannot steal it.

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