Voter Turnout Numbers Could Set Record

Early voting options and weak economy drawing large crowds to the polls.

Oct. 24, 2008 — -- This election may turn out to be a historic one, not just for the candidates, but for voters as well.

Analysts expect voter turnout numbers to beat 2004 levels -- when 60 percent of all eligible citizens came out to the polls -- and possibly even set a record.

It's difficult to gauge the magnitude of voter turnout for now, but if more than 66 percent of eligible voters turn up at the polls, election participation will be the highest it has been in a century, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

In 1908, nearly 66 percent of eligible citizens voted in the presidential race between William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan.

"Usually, what happens is that early voting starts off as a trickle," McDonald said. "This time, it is starting off as a spigot. Already, we are seeing record levels of early voting. Georgia has seen more early votes than in all 2004."

The rise can be partially attributed to more options for early and absentee voting, which make it easier for voters to cast their ballot. A weak economy is also expected to draw bigger crowds to the polls as the financial crisis leads citizens to become more involved in politics, analysts say.

But even if more than 60 percent of eligible voters cast their votes, that would still leave about 40 percent missing from the polls, which is plentiful when compared to other established democracies in the world.

Stepping to the Sidelines

Dallas Morning News' editorial columnist Rod Dreher is one of those eligible voters who does not plan to vote this year. This is the Republican's first time not voting since he cast his first ballot as a college student in 1988.

"It's not because I am apathetic; it is because I am filled with sheer disgust," he said. "I am just tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils."

Dreher is part of the 40 percent of Americans, or more, who are unlikely to show up at the polls this year. Many of these citizens, like Dreher, cannot relate to either of the candidates, or they have little trust in government.

Others simply have no interest in politics.

The young and the poor generally tend to stay away from voting as well, analysts say, although that trend has changed in this election, thanks to the financial crisis and, in large part, to the appeal of Barack Obama among young voters.

More blacks are also turning out than in the past, such as in Georgia.

But the big issue is whether voter interest will survive for future presidential elections or sink back to lower numbers.

U.S. Versus the World

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts among established democracies, comparable only to Switzerland and Japan.

Many democracies boast higher turnout because voting is mandatory, such as in Australia and the Netherlands.

Additionally, it can be simpler to vote in a parliamentary system like in the United Kingdom, where people vote for parties rather than individual candidates.

In the United States, there are more elections than in other countries and voting is a two-step process in which voters first have to register to be eligible to vote and then actually show up to cast their ballots.

In new democracies, such as Iraq, the "novelty effect" and the excitement of being part of a historic election tends to drive people to the polls, analysts say.

This is partially the case in the U.S. presidential election as well, said Michael Traugott, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and co-author of "Presidential Polls and the News Media."

Party identification is also strong this year compared to past elections, partially because of Obama's grass-roots campaign adding to the higher numbers, analysts say.

A deteriorating economy and the financial crisis will also help drive people to the polls.

"Maybe one of the major reasons why turnout is so high is because people are so unhappy," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.

When the economy deteriorated in 1992, voter turnout rose from the previous election. As the economy improved in 1996 and 2000, rates continued to drop, Kohut said.

"Voters turn out on the basis of bad news," he said. "If times become better in the future, voting will slip."

What remains to be seen is whether the "novelty effect" of the candidates, especially Obama, will translate into higher voter involvement in future elections.

Opening Up the Polls

One of the causes behind the upward tick in voter turnout is that more states are allowing people to vote early, analysts say. As a result, states like North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio and Florida are seeing higher number of registrants, McDonald said.

In Colorado, more than 60 percent of people will cast their ballot before Election Day, he estimated.

This not only boosts the number of voters, but also changes election dynamics because campaigns will be able to determine ahead of time whether they have a chance of winning in a state.

"If polls are correct in Colorado and these early votes are piling in Obama's favor, there will be a time when [John] McCain possibly can't catch up," McDonald said.

Measures such as same-day registration options also help increase voter turnout. It was one of the reasons Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the 2004 presidential elections, said Katherine Pearson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"People can be motivated to vote up until the last minute, which is important because people, especially those who have not voted before, are not paying attention until the last minute," she said.

It also facilitates voting for new residents or those who are not familiar with the system.

It remains to be seen whether voter turnout sets a record, but historic or not, many citizens are determined to stay on the sidelines.

"I haven't talked to anybody in my circles here who is not going to vote," newspaper columnist Dreher said. "But I am tired of being taken for granted."