'08 Voter Turnout Rate Said to Be Highest in 40 Years

Associated Press
Monday, December 15, 2008

Ahead of today's vote of the electoral college to certify Barack Obama as the president-elect, a George Mason University professor announced yesterday that voter turnout in last month's presidential election reached the highest level in 40 years, with a record number of Americans casting ballots.

Final figures from nearly every state and the District of Columbia showed that more than 131 million people voted. A little more than 122 million voted in the 2004 presidential election.

This year's total amounts to 61.6 percent of eligible voters, the highest turnout rate since 1968, when Republican Richard M. Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, said Michael P. McDonald, a political science professor at GMU.

It was the third straight increase in presidential election turnout, encouraging news for those who have warned about voter apathy. Four years ago, 60.1 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

"We seem to have restored the levels of civic engagement that we had in the 1950s and 1960s," McDonald said. "But we didn't break those levels."

McDonald's U.S. Elections Project calculated turnout rates based on the number of eligible voters among adult U.S. citizens. States finished certifying their election results this weekend, including California on Saturday.

Experts calculate turnout rates in different ways based on whom they consider eligible voters, a process that excludes noncitizens and, in most states, convicted felons. Regardless of the method, turnout fell short of many predictions, in part because voters in some Republican areas of the country were not as enthusiastic this year with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the party's nominee as they were four years ago with President Bush, who went on to win a second term.

Bush's unpopularity after eight years in office, the nation's fatigue with the Iraq war and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression -- coupled with Obama's message of change -- contributed to the increased turnout. Obama was also helped by a surge in black voters.

The number of registered Democrats jumped in many states, helping to propel Obama to a larger share of the vote than that for Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Voter turnout increased substantially in newly competitive states such as Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina, all of which went for Obama after decades of favoring Republican presidential candidates. Turnout also increased in some GOP-dominated states with large black populations, including Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia.

North Carolina, which had competitive elections for president, governor and Senate, had the biggest increase in turnout from 2004 to 2008, going from 57.8 percent to 65.8 percent. Obama won the state by 14,177 votes, out of more than 4.3 million cast.

Minnesota, with a competitive Senate race that still has not been decided, had the highest turnout rate, even though it was slightly lower than in some years, at 77.8 percent. It was followed by Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire and Iowa.

West Virginia and Hawaii tied for the lowest turnout rate, at 50.6 percent. Arkansas, Utah and Texas came close.

In all, the turnout rate increased in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

Turnout dropped in some states that did not have competitive presidential contests, such as Utah and Oregon. Oregon had been a battleground in previous presidential elections, and the state had a competitive Senate race.

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