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Tilting at Windmills

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November 5, 2008

TURNOUT.... Under the circumstances, this was expected to be a very high turnout year for the presidential election. But how high was it?

More than 130 million people turned out to vote Tuesday, the most ever to vote in a presidential election.

With ballots still being counted in some precincts into Wednesday morning, an estimated 64 percent of the electorate turned out, making 2008 the highest percentage turnout in generations.

In 2004, 122.3 million voted in what was then the highest recorded turnout in the contest between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

The key here is the percentage of the voting-age population. The number of ballots cast is interesting, but as the population grows, it stands to reason that the number will keep going up.

But as 64% turnout rate is a very big deal. According to this Wiki entry, turnout four years ago was about 56%, and that was considered a pretty good year. More notably, turnout was 63% in the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960, and that was the high watermark of the modern political era.

If 64% is the final number, where would that put the 2008 race historically? According to a Wall Street Journal item, we're talking about "the biggest voter turnout in the period since women got the vote in 1920."

For all the talk in recent years about voter apathy and laziness, it's a turnout rate to be proud of.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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I assume Obama received more votes than anybody before him? Or no?

Posted by: Franklin on November 5, 2008 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

Still....the biggest election in decades, and nearly 40% of the country sits on their hands.

Posted by: Wrecktum on November 5, 2008 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

It is really important to put this into context. A huge number of the RW turned out yesterday. If the Obama campaign had not had such a vast and well organized GOTV operation, he and we would have lost.

Posted by: wvng on November 5, 2008 at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

Also: I'll be curious to hear from the people who called Obama unelectable.

Posted by: Franklin on November 5, 2008 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

I assume Obama received more votes than anybody before him? Or no?

Yes, he did. But his margin of victory was so large that despite the record turnout, John McCain did NOT receive more votes than all previous runners-up (Kerry got 59m in 2004, against McCain's 56m this year).

Likely 80% turnout in MN. Same-day registration FTW!

Posted by: Midwest Product on November 5, 2008 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Turnout is being measured as a percentage of the voting age population, not as a percentage of registered voters. 64% turnout among voting age population is comparable to 80% turnout of registered voters.

(Just under 80% of the voting age population is registered to vote.)

Posted by: JB on November 5, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks to Midwest Product for giving us the percentage of registered voters, was wondering
what the figure was.

The high vote count certainly had to do with the
fact that African-Americans and Latinos were
energized to vote this cycle. We'll have to see
if this is a trend or whether Obama, as a minority
American, was the cause...

Posted by: Centrist on November 5, 2008 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

I wish someone would say where these figures come from. The Politico piece linked too makes the 130 million assertion but does not link to any data. KOS and CNN show Obama 63 million odd and McCain 55-56 million, and that adds up for me to about 120 million, not 130. The CNN map says 97% of precincts reporting, which means (assuming precincts are roughly the same size) about 3 million more, to 123 million, and Bob Barr etc. took maybe 2 million so I am at 125, not 130.

Where is the data?

Posted by: David Margolies on November 5, 2008 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

That's what I've been wondering (David Margolies 12:15 p.m.) - where's the data?

So far, Obama and McCain have 118.9 million votes between them (63.1 vs. 55.8). What about the other candidates? I haven't seen any numbers.

For comparison, in 2004 Bush got 62.0 million, Kerry 59.0 million and all the others 1.2 million for a grand total of 122.2 million.

Posted by: hark on November 5, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Where is the data?

Ditto. Maybe Rove is doing the math for Politico.

Posted by: PeakVT on November 5, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

assuming precincts are roughly the same size

Bad assumption. Some precincts are really tiny population wise - especially in rural areas servicing large land areas. Others in urban areas are huge in comparison, so it all depends on where those precincts are and how many votes they have.

As far as where the Politico got this number - I think they pulled it out of their asses. There was a WSJ story that projected around 130 million voters for yesterday - 30 million early votes had already been cast and they were projecting another 100 million to come in. I think someone decided to report this as "fact" instead of waiting for the final tallies - which probably won't be in for a couple of weeks if history is any judge.

Posted by: NonyNony on November 5, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

. . . it's a turnout rate to be proud of.

A historically high voter turnout is a good thing, no question. But 64% is still embarrassing. And even if JB is correct that ~80% of those registered actually voted, that still doesn't change the fact that ~36% of the voting age population DIDN'T BOTHER TO SHOW UP!!! Losers!!

I suppose it's not all their fault; some blame must be laid at the feet of election officials who, either by accident or design, so badly mismanaged election day that people had to stand in line for hours. And it's unreasonable to expect the country to shift from largely apathetic to fully civic-minded in just a few years, but still.

Posted by: David Bailey on November 5, 2008 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

NonyNony wrote:

"[Quoting me] 'assuming precincts are roughly the same size'

Bad assumption. Some precincts are really tiny population wise - especially in rural areas servicing large land areas. Others in urban areas are huge in comparison, so it all depends on where those precincts are and how many votes they have."

Right. I understand that. I was trying to make a first order guess (if the precincts unreporting are randomly selected, one could argue their average size was approximately the average precinct size, but I have no idea if they are in any sense random). Perhaps they do add up to 10 million -- there are reportedly 600,000 uncounted votes in Atlanta and further it is not clear that all votes have been counted in a precinct that has "reported", so I cannot claim to understand what is going on, but I wish people would explain their statements rather than just asserting them.

Posted by: David Margolies on November 5, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

Just a note from southwest Ohio - The local news coverage here showed empty polling places in the hard core republican suburbs north of Cincinnati just before the polls were closing. I know that the CW was that the McCain GOTV effort was lacking, but I didn't believe it until the area's that should be 75%+ Republican had empty polls. The people who stayed at home here were the republicans.

Posted by: apoutasse on November 5, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps when we move to an alternative method of voting, by mail as in Oregon, or by the Intertubes, we will finally see the participation of the *vast* majority, not just the majority, of Americans. It's embarrassing to see what we had to endure yesterday, but I'm so glad we all did endure it - the stakes were too high.

Our method of casting ballots is worse than many far less developed countries. Standardize it for all states, make election day a holiday, whatever...something needs to be done before 2010. Maybe some purple ink, even.

Posted by: serge on November 5, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

It's the highest turnout since 1908, according to the American Presidency Project at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php/.

Posted by: Jim on November 5, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

There are a number of elements that make up the difference between the reported 130 million total voters and the 119 million votes tallied for Obama and McCain.

First, 3rd-party candidates. It took looking through several sites to find this AP report at CSPAN's website. It shows Ralph Nader got about 650,000 votes, Bob Barr a bit under 500,000 and Cynthia McKinny almost 150,000. So there's 1.3 million or so votes accounted for.

Second, uncounted votes. All the current results report 96% of precincts reporting. Assuming the average precinct size of those reporting and not reporting is similar that is another 5 million votes. Add in incomplete tallies in precincts that have reported, absentee ballots that haven't been delivered yet (some states only require post-mark by election day) and you could have another million or more.

Third, provisional ballots. I don't know how many this is, but it could easily be in the millions. I would expect these people are counted as having voted, but are not shown in candidate totals.

Finally, undervotes. Again, I don't have any source for actual numbers and I would hope this would be relatively low. However, there are definitely going to be ballots cast where the voter didn't indicate a preference in the presidential race, or where they made a mistake on the ballot that kept their choice in that one race from registering.

Posted by: tanstaafl on November 5, 2008 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

In our precinct (Lexington, Virginia), there were 3431 registered voters (don't know what the number is of qualified adults who aren't registered). Of those, 393 voted absentee, but the detailed results on those won't be known till today at the earliest, possibly later than that, since, although most of those voted in person (on the same machines we did) there might be some still in the mail (postmarked by yesterday). We've never before had so many absentee votes; our average is ca 30, with ca 50 being the previous maximum.

Of the remaining 3038 registered voters, 2123 showed up at the precinct yesterday -- again, more than usual; normally, we're in the 1700-1800 range. They broke down: 1281 for Obama to 809 for McCain, that is 2090 votes cast for the two major guys.

The remaining 33 votes were distributed among Nader, Barr, McKinney, some other guy and there were two write-ins (they didn't tell us for who; probably Mickey Mouse). That's where the discrepancy between the numbers of votes cast and totals for O+Mc come from, is my guess.

We had 5 provisionals cast last night -- a major victory, due to the New! Improved! Electronic! system of the poll books introduced this year. Ordinarily, we'd have had much more, due to an unprecedented number of irregularities (change of address voters, gone to wrong precinct voters, HAVA voters who came without proper ID), which have to be straightened out via tons of forms filling . Last night, we were able to send people to their correct precincts, change their addresses etc in much less time and much more easily. In fact, two of the provisional got resolved before the day was over and got counted as "straight" votes, leaving only 3 to be decided (within the next 48 hrs).

All in all, we wee all cock-a-hoop with how well everything went and there were lots of self-congratulatory hugs all around, some even between Dems and Repubs :)

Posted by: exlibra on November 5, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Even if the 130M figure turns out to be right (and I've got the same problems with it that others do), how does that translate into 64% participation?

2004's 122.3M was 56% participation. 130M is a 6.3% increase over 122.3M. So even if the voting-age citizen population remained constant, the participation rate should only go up by a multiple of 1.063, and 56% x 1.063 = 59.5%.

But if the number of voting-age citizens increased, which it surely did, then the participation rate would be lower than 59.5%.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on November 5, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

The NYT just reported the current estimated vote total at 133.3 million!!! I am not sure how tosquare this with the 121.2 reported on politico and the similar number on CNN...that's a 10% difference which cannot be explained away by differential precinct size or provisional ballots. Can someone explain why with over 99% precincts in respectively, both New York and Ohio are each down over 400,000 votes from their 2004 totals, and California with almost 96% in is over 2 million down from its 2004 total?

Posted by: Michael on November 5, 2008 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

I think that everyone is somehow passing along the wrong numbers, using this site as the starting point, http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html , which projects 148 million voters.

Last time, 122 million out of 221 million voted, or 55.3%. Assuming no population growth, 130 million is 58.8%. Assuming 10% population growth, 130 million translates out to 54%.

Turnout was not high.

Posted by: Brian Karpuk on November 5, 2008 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

actually, steve, we should be proud of these numbers, but the fact is that europe has this kind of turnout regularly. in australia they're required to vote by law.

and the state of MN typically has a turnout rate over 70%.

Posted by: lllphd on November 5, 2008 at 10:12 PM | PERMALINK

But it will be disappointing if this is a one-time-only event.

All the stories about 97-year-old geezers' coming out to vote for the first time leave me with mixed feelings. Sure, it's moving, but where were these folks all those decades when progressive candidates needed their votes? And while brave people died to secure their right to vote?

I hate to inject a note of cynicism, but I'd like to see what happens in 2010 and 2012. Obama's election is important, but if it doesn't lead to real change, its value will evaporate in the end.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on November 6, 2008 at 4:00 AM | PERMALINK



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