Stateline Story

How Big a Voter Surge? Most States Joined the Party

  • November 12, 2004
  • By Kathleen Murphy

It's the year of the engaged citizen, when final tallies of voter turnout are expected to be the highest in 36 years.

Only in three statesAlaska, Arizona and New York does it look as if more voters may have stayed home than in the last presidential election, according to estimates by Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project (USEP) and a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution. Official turnout rates won't be known until December when most states have finished counting provisional ballots and certify results.

In Bush-Kerry battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, turnout was significantly higher by as much as 7 percent -- compared to the last presidential election in 2000, according to groups that study voter participation.

"We're not as apathetic as people think we are. It's a measure of how engaged citizens are," McDonald said.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) said he expects the final numbers will show that turnout in every state was higher than in 2000, when the struggle between Bush and Democrat Al Gore also turned out voters in record numbers and produced an epic split in which Gore won the popular vote but Bush won the electoral.

CSAE predicts that the final tally next month will show that 120 million citizens voted in this election -- a 59.6 percent turnout of eligible citizens, the highest since 1968 when 61.9 percent voted. Several state officials reported record turnouts. Students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, stood in line for hours in the rain to vote.

McDonald's USEP, meanwhile, estimates that 118 million citizens voted.

Either way, voter apathy was out. Politics and participation were in.

Political scientists will use the 2004 turnout rates to analyze what drives higher participation, looking at such factors as same-day registration, early voting and mail-in balloting. They also will look for connections between turnout and the amount of money spent on political races.

This year they will also scrutinize the turnout data to see whether as many social conservatives and evangelical church leaders assert -- ballot initiatives on gay marriage pulled more people to the polls. Of seven non-battleground states with a same-sex marriage question on the ballot (Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah), turnout was 4.5 percent higher than in 2000, suggesting the issue energized voters, according to the United States Election Project.

Finally, election observers will study what keeps citizens from using their vote, as in New York this year. Estimates show a turnout rate of 53 percent there compared to 56 percent in 2000.

Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the New York State League of Women Voters, said her state saw lower turnout this year because of the lack of same-day registration, the large number of uncontested state legislative races, and a widespread belief that New York was not in play and that Sen. John Kerry, a liberal northeasterner from nearby Massachusetts, would win the state handily which he did.

"We don't make it easy in New York to get energized and turn out on election day," Bartoletti said.

Six states -- Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming -- allow people to register to vote on Election Day and have consistently had voter turnout rates higher than the national average.

Some states' turnout figures that now appear lower than 2000 still have a chance of surpassing the last presidential election once all provisional, absentee and mail ballots are tallied.

In Alaska, where a U.S. Senate race was on the ballot, current estimates show only about 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots compared to 68 percent in 2000. But election observers believe Alaska's turnout rate will edge up somewhat in coming days because the state counts absentee ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Legal votes continue to pour in days after the election.

Arizona's turnout rate, 45 percent, is just one percentage point shy of the state's 2000 total, and also could eclipse it once all votes are certified, according to the USEP.

Different groups use various formulas to calculate turnout. Many states report it as a function of the number of votes divided by the number of registered voters. CSAE divides the number of voters in the state by the voting age population. USEP uses a similar formula, relying on U.S. Census data, and also accounts for the number of non-citizens and ineligible felons.