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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How High Was Turnout in the 2004 Election?

By Alan Abramowitz
For the past two days The New York Times, among other publications, has been reporting that this year’s voter turnout was higher than in any presidential election since 1968 and may even have exceeded the turnout in that election. Citing figures provided by Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the Times reported that 59.5 percent of the voting age population turned out this year. This would be a truly remarkable achievement, if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t. According to an October 24, 2004 press release from the U.S. Census Bureau, the current estimate of the voting age population of the United States is 217.8 million. Thus far, approximately 116 million votes have been tallied in the 2004 presidential election. That amounts to 53.3 percent of the current U.S. voting age population. In addition, an unknown number of late absentee and provisional ballots have not yet been counted. According to Mr. Gans, these could bring the final total of votes close to 120 million, although that seems overly optimistic.
Even if we accept this figure, however, that would only amount to 55 percent of the voting age population, not close to the level of turnout in the 1968 presidential election. Moreover, there are several reasons why it is highly unlikely that voter turnout in the United States will match the turnout levels of the 1960s any time in the near future. First, we have added 18-20 year-olds to the electorate and, even with an increase in turnout this year, the rate of turnout of this age group is far lower than that of those 21 and older. Second, the U.S. population today includes a much larger proportion of non-citizens who are ineligble to vote. During the 1960s, only about 2 percent of the voting age population consisted of non-citizens. Today, that figure is approximately 9 percent. When 2004 turnout is calculated as a proportion of the voting age citizen population, in fact, it was somewhere between 58 and 60 percent. But that is not what the Times and other media outlets have been reporting. The level of voter turnout in the 2004 election was very impressive compared with that of recent presidential elections, but as a proportion of the voting age population it was not nearly as high as that of the 1960s.

14 comments on “How High Was Turnout in the 2004 Election?

  1. Barry Burden on

    One other comment in response to Doyle’s very good questions:
    Using McDonald’s measure of the voting eligible population (at elections.gmu.edu), I find that turnout increased markedly in battleground states but not elsewhere. Turnout rose about 5 points in 11 battlegrounds but was essentially flat elsewhere. In the most hotly contested states such as OH and FL, turnout was up more like 7-8 points. But in lopsided states like CA turnout actually fell. This prevented the national turnout total from setting any records.

  2. anne on

    OK, here’s a question I hope someone can answer:
    Let’s say voter turn-out actually WAS ~60%. Let’s say it was ~50% in 2000. That’s 20% more people – a good-sized increase, but not HUGE. So why were there ENORMOUS lines? I live in Ohio (sorry everyone – we tried) and I’ve never waited in line before, but this time it took almost 90 minutes, and I was one of the lucky ones. I’m sure everyone has seen or heard about the people (in mostly minority and/or college-age precincts) who were in line for 6 hours or more.
    But I’m not really accusing anyone of anything (though I’m not letting them off the hook either); mostly I’m just looking for why 20% more people = 1000% more waiting in line.

  3. Gabby Hayes on

    There are some interesting analyses of data being performed on voting boxes in Florida. I hope you’ll be reading them before further concluding that the compass is properly calibrated towards true NORTH.
    A compass isn’t much good if it is off, and while presuming the integrity of the electoral process is one approach, another is to look at the data and see what they say.

  4. Cugel on

    Well, one thing is absolutely clear from this election. Higher turnout in and of itself would have meant absolutely nothing.
    Some experts predicted that turnout would reach 120 million. So far, with the latest figures it’s at 115.4 million. So, if there were an additional 4.6 million votes and if they broke 55-45 for Kerry (according to the conventional wisdom about new voters), Kerry would only have picked up an about an additional 2.5 million votes.
    So Bush would STILL have won the popular vote by about 1 million votes.
    Nothing could be clearer. Technical strategies to boost turnout simply won’t work.
    There must be a new strategic campaign to give voters a reason to vote FOR democrats and not just against Republicans, starting now and culminating on election day, 2008.

  5. SteveH on

    Randi Roades (Air America Radio) has some very important
    information on their web site, regarding e-machines and steps that are being taken to have the Black Boxes audited for possible irregularities, several of which have already been found in Georgia and Ohio.
    http://www.airamericaradio.com (link The Randi Roades Show)

  6. Professor Peter von Nostrand on

    I certainly want to be careful with this story, but there seem to be some troubling numbers with regard to exit polls being way off in ‘E’states and way accurate in paper ballot states… is anyone watching this? My latest post provides some interesting numbers…

  7. Tom on

    To compare “apples to apples” so to speak (turnout in ’68 vs. ’04), don’t you have to adjust for the larger number of inelligible voters in both years?

  8. tcs on

    I’m sure in the contested swing states that the percentage was very high. In my county in Wisconsin, turnout was around 80% of the census estimate for adults 18 and older.
    Was the national average dragged down because CA, NY, TX, and IL were not competitive for the presidential contest?

  9. Doyle on

    Shouldn’t we simply be talking about the voting eligible population?
    Brookings has something:
    This was useful:http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm
    And this was an valuable collection of state by state voter turnout against the number of eleigible voters….
    I wanted to see how being a “swing state” influenced voter turnout–e.g., Ohio was much higher than neighboring Indiana. I’d be interested to see a discussion of the entire 50 if someone is motivated and has time.
    More than that, I was interested in how the averages would project. So, if we took the margin in California, and assumed it was representative of the real feelings of the state, and then calculated from the number of eligible voters how many would have supported each candidate, how does it spell out nationa wide? Is it enough to overcome the small-state bias?
    Is the difference in turnout between swing states and safe states enough to explain the deviation between polls and the final electoral results?

  10. ColoZ on

    Sorry, but for what possible reason would anyone quote turnout as a fraction of a population that includes ineligible voters? The only statistic that makes any sense is the fraction of voting-age American citizens, and I’m sure that’s what the Times meant when they wrote “voting-age population.” Perhaps they chould have been clearer, but I can’t interpret it any other way. And the fact that their number agrees with yours when interpreted that way seems to bolster that interpretation.

  11. rd on

    To be fair to the Center that put out the estimate, I’m pretty sure they first reported the 59% number as a percentage of “voting eligible population,” not voting age, and this was reflected in the first wire stories I saw on it. It may be that the later newspapers that wrote it up didn’t notice the distinction.

  12. Jason Gooljar of Democracy For Westchester on

    Howard Dean for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
    By Jason Gooljar
    It was a solemn day the crowd gathered around the stage where the candidate was to give his concession. Smiles were on the faces of some, while tears fell from the cheeks of others. Rhythmic applause could be heard erupting from the people all in unison. No, this was not the election night of November 2nd , 2004. This was Howard Dean back in the winter about to end his primary bid. For some this moment can now be looked back on as the day we really lost the presidency to our own party.
    It has been said “When you trade your values for the hope of winning, you end up losing and having no values — so you keep losing.” The truth has never been more clear than it is now. We must strengthen the newly found spinal transplant of the Democratic Party. We must now take a stand with our democratic values in tow. First, I’ll tell you what we should not stand for anymore. We can no longer be a party who has to move to the center. The right has never had to do it and neither should we. We can no longer be a party who is beholden to special interests. No more of the big money donors, there is a better way. Raise the money from the grassroots.
    We need real campaign finance reform. We need to be the party of inclusion and the party of the poor and the middle class. We need to go to middle America and talk to them about what we stand for. We need to show them that we truly have their interests at heart. We need to go to the evangelical Christians and have a real discussion about America. We need to have a real discussion of religion in America. We need to re frame the debate from our perspective and not reinforce the conservative frames already in place.
    When Goldwater lost, his backers did not give up. Goldwater actually lost badly. We have not been greatly defeated like they were. It took them forty years to build the machine they have in place now. We let them do it while we snickered at them and laughed at them for being extremists who would never hold power. They continued to work and they continued to organize. They started winning locally at the state level throughout the middle states and then they went national. They threw the moderate republicans out in favor of the new conservatives. There is much to learn from our opponents indeed.
    As we rebuild our party we must keep some things in mind. The neo conservatives do not have absolute power. There were millions of Americans who voted against this President. We still have the power, you still have the power. We as the progressive movement can no longer be afraid of losing. In order to win you must loose. As long as you keep your values when you loose you can continue to fight on. If you give them up you have nothing. Either we as the democratic party stand for something or we stand for nothing at all. After all why vote for a right wing lite party when you can vote for the real thing as middle America did.
    Terry McAuliffe’s strategy had major flaws in my opinion. The tactic of a shorter primary in my opinion was not a good idea. We could have used the time to truly prepare our national agenda. We could have used that time to allow our democratic ideals to take forefront in the media. Chairman Mcauliffe is an incredible fund raiser this has been said but he lacks the vision to take this party in the direction it has to go. It has also been said that his agenda did not truly involve the south.
    With all of this being said I’m asking the people who voted against this President to ask the DNC to elect former Governor Howard Dean as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Howard Dean has a clear vision of where this party needs to be headed. We need his guidance to achieve our goals as a progressive movement. If we loose in the interim if we stay together as a movement we can shoulder the losses and eventually trumpet the wins. I’m asking for the people to write letters to the media and call elected officials in the democratic party to push for election of Howard Dean as the new chairman of the DNC.


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