Election turnout high, but not a record

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Voters turned out in record numbers for the historic presidential election, but the percentage of eligible voters fell short of predictions.

The long lines, early voting and enthusiastic turnout of African-Americans and young people added up to an estimated 133.3 million voters, according to turnout expert Michael McDonald of George Mason University.

However, only about 62.5 percent of eligible voters — lower than in 1960 and 1964 — cast ballots. Absentee and mail-in ballots may increase the number and top 1964 but not, experts say, the high-water mark of 63.8 percent set by the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon contest.

The election of Democrat Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, is historic on many levels, but not in the participation of eligible voters.

"It's not at all a historic election in terms of turnout," said Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington.

What may be historic is the registration and turnout of Democrats and the activity in some formerly solid "red" states such as North Carolina. Gans, who puts U.S. turnout at 127 million to 130 million once absentee and mail-in ballots are counted, is impressed with the Tar Heels.

"North Carolina increased its turnout by 8 percent," he said. "That's extraordinary."

In 2008, 65.7 percent of eligible North Carolina voters participated in the election, up from 56.8 percent in 2004.

"First of all, the state has more people," said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the program on public life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Second, we've got more of them registered. Finally, when people used to ask me why turnout was flat, I would say, 'More dirty campaigns would help.' "

The heated 2008 general election, with a clear choice between Obama and John McCain, stimulated turnout, said Guillory, as well as the down-and-dirty U.S. Senate race between Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan. Hagan unseated Dole.

Young people and African-Americans also voted in large numbers across the country.

Turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds increased by 6 percent over 2004, said the youth-registration movement Rock the Vote, using McDonald's data. That's 4 million more young voters than in 2004.

"Yesterday, more young people voted than in any election since 18-year-olds won the right to vote in 1972," said Heather Smith, the executive director of Rock the Vote. "This is truly a remarkable moment; young people have spoken and elected the next president."

An overwhelming majority of African-Americans — 96 percent of black women and 95 percent of black men — supported Obama, according to Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International exit polls.

While voting was relatively problem-free — unlike trouble-plagued Ohio in 2004 — experts said the states had to anticipate greater turnout.

"The number one problem on Election Day was registered, eligible voters' names not appearing on the voter rolls," said Wendy Weiser, the director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

"The vast turnout put a major stress on the system, leading to long lines in many places because of machine failures and a lack of contingency plans," she said.

One solution has been to authorize early voting, now available in 32 states. However, Brennan Center executive director Michael Waldman said, "We need a system of standard voter registration in which the government makes sure that every eligible citizen is automatically registered, so that every eligible voter's voice can be heard when they take responsibility to vote."

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