Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Voter Turnout

As we look southward for electoral inspiration, it is interesting to note, that despite the unprecedented enthusiasm, large rallies, GOTV and compelling figures, turnout for the American election fell short of expectations. An analysis for Politico found:
... roughly the same portion of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008 as in 2004.

Between 60.7 percent and 61.7 percent of the 208.3 million eligible voters cast ballots this year, compared with 60.6 percent of those eligible in 2004, according to a voting analysis by American University political scientist Curtis Gans, an authority on voter turnout.

He estimated that between 126.5 million and 128.5 million eligible voters cast ballots this year, versus 122.3 million four years ago. Gans said the gross number of ballots cast in 2008 was the highest ever, even though the percentage was not substantially different from 2004, because there were about 6.5 million more people registered to vote this time around.

Then the argument becomes a question of more registered voters, a sure sign that people were engaged. Well, that increase of 6.5 million is far less than the 18 million increase between 2000 and 2004. Further, a full 10 million more Americans were eligible to vote in this election, a figure which demonstrates the increased registered voter list is more correctly simply a function of population growth.

We also hear of a more formidable GOTV effort in 2008, as the organizational prowess of the campaigns, fueled by record fundraising, would translate at the polls. Maybe not:
The Democratic increase struck some analysts as modest, considering the party’s immense get-out-the-vote operation, strong anti-Bush sentiment and Obama's popularity.

“It sort of calls into question some of the vaunted ground game discussion, the whole turnout machine,” said a Democratic strategist who did not want to be quoted by name criticizing Obama’s campaign. “The GOTV effort was redoubled in 2008 compared to 2004, but it did not seem to make that big of a difference.”

A couple battleground states:
In Ohio, which has had aggressive GOTV campaigns in the past two presidential cycles, the number of voters appeared to decline from 5,722,443 in 2004 to 5,595,966 in 2008, according to the final but unofficial tally by the Ohio secretary of state. Turnout in those years dropped from 72 percent to 67 percent.

In Pennsylvania, 5,851,730 voters cast ballots with 99.8 percent of votes counted — a rise of nearly 690,000 voters over 2004, according its secretary of state. But due to higher registration, the percent of eligible voters who cast ballots dropped from 68.96 in 2004 to 66.8 this year.

I've also read, that the youth vote, if the exit polls are too believed, only increased to 18% of the total, as opposed to 17% in 2004. That pours a small dose of cold water on Obama's capacity to motivate a new generation, although in fairness, a gain is a gain.

The turnout was high, by American standards, so much of the above is more for balance, than to argue poor turnout. However, when you compare our snoozefest of an election, with a host of wooden characters, with an American election boasting charismatic overload, not to mention a host of compelling issues, it is noteworthy that turnout stateside amounts to about 2% more than in Canada, statistically comparable. That said, Canadians typically have much better turnout, but then again, the last American election was anything but typical.

High turnout, but droves to the polls, as predicted, not so much.


William said...


I wonder if it has more to do with the ability of most Canadians to vote in 15 minutes or less while the average American takes over 2 hours?

Steve V said...


Was it much different from 2004? I agree, it's a much more cumbersome process, but it hasn't really changed.

The Jurist said...

I'd keep in mind McCain's strategy (or lack thereof) in looking at the overall numbers - when one of the two major parties essentially punts the very idea of a ground game after having a strong one in the previous election, it makes sense that the total vote will have only so much room to grow. But Democratic turnout looks to have been up across the board compared to a 2004 election where there was already a strong anti-Bush movement at work.

Steve V said...


Is that entirely true, Obama received less votes than Kerry in Ohio? I understand the point, but I would be curious to see if independents share went up. I'd also like to see if turnout extended beyond increased African American participation.

Anonymous said...

Well, one perspective to keep in mind, Steve, is that while many have been touting that the youth vote was "only" up 1%, one analysis pointed out the votes in the younger age groups (under 29) went for Obama at about a 2 to 1 ratio. That was decidedly NOT the case in 2004, when the youth group was actually rather divided).

One analysis has calculated that meant instead of Obama having a 2-point margin of victory, he instead ended up with a nearly 6-point margin.

The greater preference in the youth vote exceeds what even Reagan achieved in his first election, which is widely credited for cementing a generation of Americans in conservative voting patters with which they have remained for the most part ever since yielding benefits for Republicans in races ever since.

The real long-term success of this election, should it transpire (which I will concede remains to be seen), would be if Obama manages to engender a generation of progressive voters. If he does, this election could very well lay the seeds of a voting block who could shape the electorate for many years to come.

When a Democrat manages to win the Presidency by the largest margin since Johnson, I'm just not going to engage much quibbling about how it could have / should have been better. The Democrats just went a long way to dispelling the idea that the electorate is forever set against them. If they make some good happen (or just go miles in convincing some in the electorate that Obama does not represent evil incarnate), they may be well-positioned for electoral success in the future.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I did a check myself and in 2004, the youth vote did go for Kerry, but by a much smaller 54 - 45 margin. I had been wondering that since I had read the report.

I've been a little bugged in general how quick some analyst have been to compare preliminary vote counts to final counts in 2004, as millions of provisional votes are still being counted - or have not yet been figured into the results.

I've read different analysis since the election that show turnout anywhere from 126 million to 133 million - all of which exceeds 2004 which by any measure was a banner year of turnout in the US, being the best in over 30 years at the time. So that would tend to indicate 2008 was a very good turnout year.

Also, all this focus on Ohio - this is the second time I've seen that reported - seems like going out of the way to focus on one state.

Why not equally focus on states like Colorado or Virginia - or even Florida - where overall turnout was notably higher and where the increase in Democratic turn-out was phenomenal when compared to 2004.

It just seems to be very selective reporting, and it started the VERY DAY AFTER THE ELECTION!

That to me says some interests are working very hard to minimize the results of this election, which I find somewhat questionable.

A month or so from now, when all the votes are really "on the record," have at it. But when I read a "disappointing turn-out analysis" less than 36 hours after the election polls closed (which I did), I instantly have a little suspicion.

Steve V said...


People focus on Ohio, because, well, it's Ohio :)

As for youth turnout, it did move to Obama. I guess the point, turnout amongst that subset was still nothing to conclude complete engagement, it's more of a shift, as you point out, rather than a massive influx.

Anonymous said...

I know no one will ever see this, except perhaps you Steve ; ). But I stumbled upon something this morning that reminded me of all the hand-wringing (and glee among some Republicans) peddling the idea that 2008 was not really that great a year for voter turnout in the US IMMEDIATELY after polls closed.

Well, here is a link of the chart showing final tallies. Lo and behold, it ends up 2008 did exceed the voter turnout rates in 2004 by a far share, making it the best voter turnout in the US since the late 60s.

Here is the specific 2008 data:


And here is the main page showing the chart for the past several decades:


Not bad, huh? Approximately 132 Million votes nationwide. Guess politico and the Republican blogs were wrong.

It just goes to show that good spin is great spin if you know when the real facts come out, no one will even be paying any attention (including the news media).

Anonymous said...

Oh, and one more thing on this. That Ohio number than Politico was all over as an example, using the "unofficial" tally.

Well, the final number of voters was 5,773,387, a slight uptick from 2004 in a state losing population.

The clincher for me is that the tally from 2004 he had used in his post was exact with the number on the site I linked.

So, alas, there was no drop in the voting turnout in Ohio. In fact, even they saw the tally increase in a state that has been losing population.