After huge registration drives by both campaigns and thousands of new registrants this year, turnout in 2008 didn’t look much different than it did in 2004. According to an analysis by American University’s Curtis Gans, this year’s turnout was 61.2 percent, less than one percentage point higher than it was in 2004.
And only 22 states and the District of Columbia actually reported higher turnout than four years ago.
The real change was in who made up the 61.2 percent. In 2004, 28.5 percent of Democrats turned out to vote. This year that number jumped to just over 31 percent.
Democrats turned out in much higher numbers in several red states, especially Indiana, which saw a more than 8 percent increase in Democratic turnout. North Carolina, Hawaii, Delaware, Georgia and North Dakota all had a more than 6 percent increase in Democratic voters.
There were only seven states that didn’t report a higher number of Democratic voters eagerly casting ballots.
The GOP wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. Republican turnout dropped from 30 percent in 2004 to 28.7 percent, and only saw an increase in eight states.
So what caused the drop? Gans says John McCain’s vice presidential pick Sarah Palin didn’t help, and there was a general lack of enthusiasm among Republicans. The drop in GOP voters is the main reason Gans cites for overall turnout being lower than anticipated.
But perhaps the greatest disappointment of 2008 was the failure of early voting to boost turnout numbers. States across the nation made extensive and expensive efforts to let people vote before Election Day, hoping to boost the number of voters. But, of the 14 states with turnout increases, only six had convenience voting. And 13 of the states with turnout decreases did have it.
“…the central issue governing turnout is not procedure but motivation,” Gans writes. “These new procedures, except for Election Day registration for some states, don’t help turnout and pose some discrete dangers for American democracy [by creating easier opportunities for voter fraud].”
In the end, the historic turnout didn’t materialize, and the lines weren’t that much longer than they were in 2004. They just had different people in them.
Abigail Shaha is a contributor to Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org