Voters apparently turned out in slightly greater numbers Tuesday than in the last two non-presidential elections, with analysts largely crediting concern about Reaganomics for the reversal of a general 22-year decline in voting.
While preliminary figures vary, one leading voting analyst, Curtis B. Gans, said that more than 40 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls, compared with 37.9 percent in the 1978 elections. The final figure should reach 41 percent as lagging returns come in, he said.
The greatest increases came in the South and most of the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, which have been hardest hit by the recession.
Gans found increased turnout in 26 states and the District of Columbia, while fewer voters showed up in 15 states. The greatest increases were 13.7 percent in Arkansas and 10.1 percent in Georgia.
Other states showing significant increases were Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Alabama and Texas. The biggest decreases came in Florida, 6.5 percent, and Nevada, 6.1 percent.
A surge of black, Hispanic and working-class voters in many of these states provided crucial margins for several Democratic candidates, including Mark White's upset victory in the Texas gubernatorial election.
"People felt a stake in the election, especially in the industrial states where the economic issues were felt most," said Gans, who heads the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "The economy propelled a lot of people to cast a vote of protest, and there was some return to the Democratic fold by working-class voters."
Other analysts said that record unemployment, unprecedented campaign spending and intensive negative advertising had aroused passions and turned the 1982 election into a referendum on the Reagan administration. This was most evident among black voters, who emerged in great numbers in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and elsewhere to vent their frustrations.
Voter turnout has declined steadily in both presidential and off-year elections in every campaign since 1960. Some analysts have blamed the decline on growing disillusionment with the American political system.
More than 70 percent of the voters routinely turn out in nearly every country in Europe, with margins greater than 90 percent in West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria and Malta, as well as in New Zealand and Australia.
Even with computer technology, gauging voter turnout remains an inexact science. Gans based his figures on the highest vote count for a statewide race in 46 states and the District of Columbia. He had to make estimates for three states with no statewide contests and for incomplete returns from Alaska.
The latest available figures show that 63.9 million Americans voted in the 46 states and the District, out of a total voting-age population of 169 million, Gans said. Absentee ballots and recounts could boost this figure slightly.
But CBS News, working from similar figures, estimated Tuesday's turnout at just over 39 percent.
Others rely on voting figures for House contests, which depresses the turnout because of many uncontested races. ABC News, using this method, put the figure at 34.9 percent, about the same as voted in congressional races four years ago.
Locally, Gans found that voter turnout was up 4.2 percent in the District, which voted on a statehood constitution; 2.5 percent in Virginia, which had a tight Senate race, and 1.2 percent in Maryland.
Ann Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee, said labor unions had mounted an all-out registration drive, signing up thousands of new voters who were dismissed by most pollsters because they rarely went to the polls before.
"Anger at Reaganomics was really a strong motivating factor," she said. "Black voters and unemployed voters are clearly the ones bearing the brunt of the administration's policies."
Gans said many frustrated, middle-class voters have turned their backs on politics in recent years, joining a group of poorer citizens who never bothered to vote, in part because registration is difficult in many areas. A third group of reluctant voters is those aged 18 to 30, who some say will lead a modest upturn in voting as the "baby boom" generation grows into middle age.
Turnout in off-year elections dropped sharply from 48.1 percent in 1962 to 38.3 percent in the Watergate year of 1974. In presidential years, the turnout has fallen from 62.8 percent in 1960 to 53.9 percent in 1980.
Voting has increased most in the South because many blacks have been registered under the Voting Rights Act, Gans said, but Georgia, South Carolina and Texas still had less than a 30 percent turnout, lowest in the nation.