AUSTIN -- Nearly three weeks before the primary election here this spring, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Clayton Williams held rallies in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. After he worked the crowds to a proper pitch, he led them -- Pied Piper-like -- to a nearby polling place.

And at the polling place, they voted.

This wasn't a civics lesson. It was the real thing. In Texas, Election "Day" lasts for 2 1/2 weeks, the result of a unique state law passed in 1987 that has the potential to revive political parties, defang last-minute attack ads and -- just maybe -- bring voting back into fashion.

The United States has the lowest rate of voter participation of any democracy in the world, and the Texas law is but one of a variety of innovations adopted by state officials around the country in an effort to stem the steep 30-year slide in voter turnout.

The most common has been the easing of restrictions on absentee voting. In 1988, an estimated 8 percent of all voters nationwide mailed their ballots in, nearly double the percentage of eight years earlier.

In California -- where a recent Los Angeles Times poll of non-voters found the most common reason given for not voting was that people are "too busy" -- it is no longer necessary to stipulate a reason in requesting an absentee ballot. Mail ballots are made available, on request, to anyone who cannot, or does not, want to wait in line on Election Day.

More than 14 percent of all Californians who voted in 1988 did so by mail, and in a special state Assembly election earlier this year, a majority of ballots were cast by mail. In Texas, 24.2 percent of all ballots cast in 1988 were cast before Election Day -- 19.5 percent in person at special locations in each county that opened 20 days and closed four days before Election Day, and 4.7 percent by mail.

Despite these innovations, the overall voting rates in the two most active early-voting states continue their relentless decline. "It confounds me why we aren't seeing an overall increase," said Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio.

The most telling comparison is between the presidential turnouts in Texas in 1984 and 1988. In between the two elections, the state legislature passed the early voting law. But in 1988, while roughly one-quarter of all voters were taking advantage of the early voting system, the overall Texas turnout was 44.2 percent, down from 1984's 47.2 percent. California's turnout dropped from 49.6 percent in 1984 to 47.4 percent in 1988 despite a nearly 50 percent increase in mail ballots. Nationally, the turnout dropped from 1984's 53.1 percent to 1988's 50.2 percent -- the lowest figure in 64 years.

Still, no one is ready to write off early voting as a potential antidote to falling turnouts. Nor are candidates or political parties about to let their opponents steal a march on the most important change in the mechanics of voting in recent memory.

"I feel like this is something we can't afford not to take advantage of," said Dick Leggitt, a Republican consultant who coordinated Williams's early-vote program in the Texas primary. "The early vote law was pushed by Democrats and organized labor in Texas, and when it first went into effect, I was terrifed. But in hindsight, I think they miscalculated. The Democrats may have the manpower to take advantage of early voting, but we have the technology."

Three days before the early voting period began in the Texas primary, Williams campaign workers mailed letters to 160,000 of their previously identified supporters, telling them how and where to vote early, and asking them to return a coded post card when they did vote. If the cards didn't come back in a week, there was a follow-up letter or phone call.

The Democrats dismiss the GOP's technological advantage. "All the Republicans are doing is spending a lot of money to get people who vote anyway to vote early," said Ed Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. "We have more of a low-turnout population. Our goal with early voting is to actually add new voters."

Democrats hope they can put the manpower of organized labor and black and Hispanic groups into play over a 2 1/2-week period to drive up a big vote in core Democratic areas. That's exactly what they did in a special congressional election last summer in Fort Worth to replace House Speaker Jim Wright (D) after he resigned. Wright's seat was captured by Democrat Preston "Pete" Geren -- who trailed by 1,398 votes cast on Election Day, but won the early vote (which accounted for about one-fifth of the overall vote) by 3,022 votes.

By law, local elections officials must make available a running list of who has voted early and who hasn't, and this enabled the Geren campaign to target all non-voters who lived in 70-plus percent Democratic precincts.

"Basically, you get two bites at the apple," said Martin. "You can gear up your organization for a Super Saturday 10 days before the election, and then you can do it all over again on the Tuesday of Election Day -- knowing exactly who's already voted and who hasn't."

In California, Democrats used an elaborate early mail targeting program to win a special election to replace Rep. Tony Coelho (D) last summer and a state Assembly special election this winter. In the state Assembly race, hundreds of volunteer "guest walkers" from out of the district joined forces with hired workers from a temporary employee firm to distribute absentee mail ballot applications in Democratic areas.

But this gets expensive. California House Speaker Willie Brown (D) estimated that it costs as much as $12 per absentee voter for a top-of-the-line, get-out-the-vote-early program that includes mail, phone calls and at least one personal visit. That explains why, though Democrats have been able to make great use of mail ballots in small districts, they've never been able to crack the case statewide: The cost is prohibitive.

The rule in California is that when neither party pushes mail ballots, the Republicans win them: Their voters are better-educated, better-informed and more likely to take advantage of the convenience. In the 1982 California governor's race, Republican George Deukmejian won a squeaker against Democrat Tom Bradley on the strength of his absentee ballot margin. In 1988, George Bush beat Michael S. Dukakis in California by a bare 1 percent on Election Day and by 15 percent in the mail vote.

While it's not yet clear which party will gain the most by the increasing focus on early voting, one apparent bipartisan effect will be to diminish the payoff from late-campaign television ads. "If you're a front-runner and you put most of your votes in the bank early, nobody will be able to nuke you at the end with a negative spot," said GOP consultant Mike Murphy.

Election officials around the country are watching the California and Texas early vote experiences closely -- but with an initial disposition more toward the Texas in-person system than the California mail approach.

"The problem with a heavy absentee ballot program is that it's virtually an invisible process," said William Kimberling, deputy director of the National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, an agency of the Federal Election Commission. "This means it is fraught with risk, and the election community is conservative about changes."

As an example of potential abuse, Kimberling noted that a tavern owner's association in California recently sent flyers to bar customers inviting them to come to their local taproom and bring along their absentee ballots. There is a ballot initiative in California this year to impose a 5-cent drink tax, which the tavern owners oppose.

"There is no rule in California that the voter must return the absentee ballot himself or herself," said Kimberling. "This means that any third party can do it for him, and that means there is a lot of room for influence or coercion."

"If this were done in a Third World country where American observers were watching, no one would agree that the elections were free or fair," added Richard Smolka, a professor of government at American University and a nationally known election specialist. "You have a total lack of control over the integrity of the process."

The California secretary of state has set up a task force to examine questions of ballot integrity arising from the increasing use of mail ballots.

The Texas system of in-person early voting is not open to such abuse, but it is more expensive -- polls must be opened and staffed for 2 1/2 weeks. And it still has to prove itself as a turnout-raiser.