Voter turnout best in generations

America voted in record numbers, standing in lines that snaked around blocks and in some places in pouring rain. Voters who queued up yesterday and the millions who balloted early propelled 2008 to what one expert said was the highest turnout in a century.

It looks like 136.6 million Americans will have voted for president this election, based on 88 per cent of the country's precincts tallied and projections for absentee ballots, said Michael McDonald of George Mason University. Using his methods, that would give 2008 a 64.1 per cent turnout rate.

"That would be the highest turnout rate that we've seen since 1908," which was 65.7 per cent, McDonald said early Wednesday. It also would beat the old post World War II high of 63.8 per cent in the famed 1960 John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon squeaker. The 1908 race elected William Howard Taft over William Jennings Bryan.

The total voting in 2008 easily outdistanced 2004's 122.3 million, which had been the highest grand total of voters before.

But another expert disagrees with McDonald's calculations and only puts 2008 as the best in 40 years. Different experts calculate turnout rates in different ways based on whom they consider eligible voters.

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University and dean of turnout experts, said his early numbers show 2008 to be about equal to or better than 1964, but not higher than 1960. He said it looks like total votes, once absentees are tallied (which could take a day or so), will be "somewhere between 134 and 135 million."

What's most interesting about early results is not just how many people voted but the shifting demographic of American voters, said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard and MIT.

Using exit polling data, Ansolabehere determined that whites made up 74 per cent of the 2008 electorate. That's down considerably from 81 per cent in 2000 because of increase in black and Hispanic voting, he said.

"That's a big shift in terms of demographic composition of the electorate," Ansolabehere said early Wednesday.

Breakdown by party voting also shows that Republican turnout rates are down quite a bit, while Democratic turnout rates are up, Gans said.

Republican states, such as Wyoming and South Dakota, saw turnout drop. "I think they were discouraged," Gans said.

Experts pointed to a weak economy and a lively campaign that promised a history-making result for the high turnout.

North Carolina set a record for its highest turnout rate of eligible voters, because of close presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races, Gans said. Other states where turnout increased were Indiana, Delaware, Virginia and Alabama. The District of Columbia also set a record, he said.

Ansolabehere said young voters didn't show up in the advertised wave, but others disagreed.

"Young voters have dispelled the notion of an apathetic generation and proved the pundits, reporters and political parties wrong by voting in record numbers today," said Heather Smith, the executive director of Rock the Vote. "The Millennial generation is making their mark on politics and shaping our future."

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