Voter Turnout In Election Falls Short Of Record

Close to 62 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in last week's elections, says Curtis Gans, director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. The number is the highest since 1964, but short of the 67 percent turnout in 1960.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. One thing about the election of 2008 seemed certain. With such enthusiasm, especially among young and minority group voters, with so many more states being contested by both presidential campaigns, the turnout would break all records. Well, not exactly. Curtis Gans is director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. He has been studying turnout for - back to the Wilson administration, or something like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: In any case, in 2008...

Mr. CURTIS GANS (Director, Center for the Study of American Electorate, American University): The Carter election.

SIEGEL: The Carter election. How would you describe turnout in 2008 last week?

Mr. GANS: I would describe it as high, but clearly no record. The highest turnout we've had since women were given the vote was 1960. That was 67 percent of eligible. We'll probably be close to 62 percent of eligible, which still is a high turnout, highest since 1964.

SIEGEL: Well, first in terms of the gross number, though, of people who voted - since they're still counting votes, we can't say with absolutely certainty - but about how many people do we think will have taken part?

Mr. GANS: Between 128 and 128 and a half million, which is six and half million more than we had in 2004. Although, the number always goes up, the percentage doesn't necessarily.

SIEGEL: Which states actually had better turnout? Which were the champion states here, do we think?

Mr. GANS: North Carolina and Georgia had the biggest bump-up in turnout of any states in the country. North Carolina, I think, it was a number of factors because they had three races going: governor, senator, and the presidential race. Georgia, I think, had a lot to do with the senatorial race, and I think it had a lot to do with African-American turnout. And it had a lot to do with the secretary of state trying to impose ID requirements that African-Americans were unhappy with.

SIEGEL: But there were a lot of states in the country where the turnout, certainly as a percent of eligible voters, was not higher that it was four years ago.

Mr. GANS: Absolutely. There were eight states that had record-high turnouts, and they were all in the South, plus the District of Columbia. But there were a lot of states that had substantially lower turnout, and Hawaii set a record for low turnout this election.

SIEGEL: For their almost native son who is running for president.

Mr. GANS: Oh, the Democratic turnout went way up in Hawaii. It's the Republican turnout that went down.

SIEGEL: Now, early voting. Early voting became more common. I guess with each election cycle, it's been getting more common. Certainly not so common as it is in Oregon, but Colorado is a big early voting state. The states you mentioned, Georgia had long lines before Election Day. Does that appear to you merely to shift forward in time voting, but leave the total relatively on track? Or does it actually add lots and lots of additional votes to the process?

Mr. GANS: There is no evidence that convenience voting - no-excuse absentee, early voting, mail voting - enhances turnout. There is some evidence that it detracts from the turnout. Of the 13 states that had the greatest decrease in turnout this time around, 12 of them had one of the convenience voting features. Of the 14 states that had the greatest increase, only six had convenience voting.

This has been true in every election. This is a time shift for some people. Some people with no-excuse absentees leave their ballots on the kitchen table. You diffuse mobilization over a period of X number of days rather than focusing on one day, and you reduce the power. In this election, the Democrats did a major early vote mobilization effort, but it's not clear that they wouldn't have gotten the same amount of votes if the people showed up on Election Day.

SIEGEL: Compared to other Western democracies, did we just have a typically awful year or are we competitive with other countries?

Mr. GANS: We're basically not competitive with other democracies except Switzerland where we are actually better than them.

SIEGEL: Do the women have the vote yet in Switzerland?

Mr. GANS: The women have the vote. But what they do in Switzerland is referend every issue of consequence, so the election of people is less important. The last time, this agency in Sweden that ranks the countries put us at 139th out of 172 democracies. We may have moved up a few pegs because of the last two elections, but we are not very in good in terms of participation rates in the world.

SIEGEL: Curtis Gans, thanks a lot.

Mr. GANS: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Curtis Gans is director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

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