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Elections: turnout in the 2004 presidential election.

One of the major stories of the 2004 presidential election was the increase in voter turnout from 2000. There is no doubt that there was heightened interest in the 2004 campaign and that rates of voter participation increased most everywhere in the United States. All Americans should be pleased with this aspect of the contest between Bush and Kerry. Yet, this good news needs to be tempered once one puts political interest and turnout in 2004 into historical perspective. Journalists who wrote of "unprecedented interest" in the 2004 race for the White House were clearly exaggerating. And anyone who wrote of "record turnout" among voters could only justify such a claim by focusing on the sheer number of voters who cast ballots--not on the percentage of eligible persons. This research note presents a variety of data on these points in an attempt to place the 2004 participation results into clear perspective.

Interest in the 2004 Presidential Campaign

Few observers would question the assertion that public interest in the Bush-Kerry race was higher than was the case for the Bush-Gore race of 2000, and much higher than interest in the Clinton-Dole-Perot race of 1996. Yet, memories all too often seemed to be quite short in assessing public interest in the presidential campaign. Relatively little mention was made of the very high level of interest that the public expressed in the Clinton-Bush-Perot contest of 1992. Polls done by the Pew Center for People and the Press showed that interest in the 2004 campaign was roughly identical to what was found at comparable points in the 1992 campaign. For example, they found that 76 percent of registered voters interviewed in mid-October 2004 said they had given "a lot of thought" to the presidential election compared to 77 percent who responded this way in early October 1992. In mid-October 2004 a Pew Center poll found that 54 percent said they had been following news about the presidential election "very closely" and another 29 percent said "fairly closely." At roughly the same point in 1992, 55 percent responded "very closely" and 36 percent said "fairly closely."

It is of course one thing to say you are interested in the campaign and quite another to actually do something which demonstrates interest. One measure for which good data exist over time is viewing presidential debates. These statistics are highly reliable because Nielsen Media Research compiles them based on devices attached to TVs in a random sample of households. With the transformation of political conventions into stage-managed coronations, live presidential debates have come to be the only moments of true spontaneity and drama in modern American campaigns. Just as interest in the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and other regular big events in American culture can be traced by rising and falling Nielsen ratings, so can interest in presidential campaigns via debate ratings.

As shown in Table 1, like most other major events on television, the Nielsen data show declining ratings for viewing presidential debates since cable started to substantially fragment the viewing audience in the early 1980s. There have been two clear exceptions to the pattern of declining ratings for presidential debates during this period--1992 and 2004. Interestingly, in both cases the Nielsen ratings increased 19 percent from the level measured four years earlier. Thus, the increase in interest in the 2004 election--as measured by watching the major events of the campaign--was hardly unprecedented. Indeed, it was a virtual repeat of what occurred between 1988 and 1992. The major difference was that the typical audience for the presidential debates of 1992 was 43 percent of the population as compared to just 33 percent in 2004. Perhaps this decline was inevitable given the increased number of viewing options for Americans as the television environment has been transformed from broadcasting to narrowcasting. But in any event, it would be hard to argue from these numbers that interest in the 2004 campaign rose to an unprecedented level.

Turnout of the Voting Age Population in 2004

The widely reported figure of 122 million voters who participated in the 2004 presidential election was a record-shattering number in terms of raw number of votes, far exceeding the previous mark of 105 million in 2000. Of course, if what is most important in voter turnout is the number of people who vote, then India would win hands down as the world's greatest democracy. One has to take into account the size of the adult population in order to evaluate turnout in any election. Although the American media seemed fascinated with the statistic of 122 million voters, the denominator for calculating turnout was rarely mentioned. The traditionally used measure in the United States, where registration is far from automatic and tens of millions of eligible people do not bother to register, is the Census Bureau's estimate of the voting age population. As of July 2003, the Census estimate of the American population over 18 years of age was 217.8 million. Assuming that the population continued to increase at the recent rate yields an estimate of 221.3 million for voting age population in November 2004. Thus, the turnout rate among Americans who were at least 18 years of age was about 55 percent. Although this represents a 4 percent increase over turnout of voting age population in 2000, it is exactly equal to the 55 percent turnout the nation experienced in 1992 and well short of the modern high of 63 percent in 1960.

Using 1960 as a benchmark comparison for turnout might well be criticized as starting from an unnaturally high point. However, contrary to any notion that turnout in 1960 was strictly due to the excitement caused by the close Kennedy-Nixon contest, Converse et al. wrote in 1961 that the increase in turnout had mostly occurred in the South. (1) At that point in the study of elections, scholars had good reason to be optimistic that turnout would rise even further due to the clear prospect that registration restrictions in the South would be loosened. As expected decades ago, turnout in the South has indeed risen substantially from a mere 40 percent of the voting age population in the Kennedy-Nixon contest to 52 percent in 2004. On the other hand, outside the South there has been a clear decline in turnout from a fairly respectable rate of 70 percent in 1960 to a disappointing figure of 56 percent in 2004.

Turnout of the Citizen Voting Age Population in 2004

It should be noted that all of the turnout percentages presented above are based on a denominator that includes everyone over the age of 18 residing in the United States, including non-citizens, felons, and other individuals who are not actually eligible to vote due to a variety of state laws. McDonald and Popkin argue that turnout decline is a "myth" because the voting age population has increasingly contained more people ineligible to vote due to rising immigration and crime rates. (2) Although they have a reasonable point, adjusting the voting age population for non-citizens does not greatly change the pattern since 1960, as displayed in Table 2. When non-citizens are removed from the calculations, one finds that only about 61 percent of people in the non-South voted in 2004 as compared to 71 percent in 1960; in the South a significant increase can again be seen from 41 to 57 percent. It would be hard to see how a change of this magnitude outside the South can be seen as a myth. And taking into account changes in the percentage of the population that is disenfranchised due to felony convictions (currently about 1.6 percent) is scarcely likely to change the pattern noticeably either.

Substantively, it is my view that the fact that non-citizens and convicted felons are not voting is of importance, and that such information should not be ignored by removing them from the national calculations. Many of these people pay taxes and potentially stand to benefit from government programs as well. Whether it is right or wrong to exclude them from voting is not self-evident, as demonstrated by the varying franchise rules that have been applied throughout U.S. political history (3) and which currently are in place around the world. (4) In his last message to Congress, President Clinton recommended restoring voting rights to felons after they have served their sentences, a proposal which was subsequently endorsed by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform. (5) On the citizenship question, many leaders in the Latino community believe that those who are on the road to becoming citizens should be allowed to vote. (6) And in any event, non-citizens are counted in the Census, which means that apportionment of political districts includes them. (In fact, there are districts in the Los Angeles area where the majority of adults are resident aliens. These people are probably receiving de facto representation, even though they can't vote for the people who represent their interests.) In sum, we need to take into account that such people are not voting today, just as the fact that people who were effectively disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws was taken into account in 1960.

State Patterns of Voter Turnout

Although it is noteworthy that millions of adult non-citizens who count in the apportionment numbers, pay taxes, and are eligible to receive government benefits are unable to vote, when it comes to examining variations in statewide turnout it seems best to exclude them. This is because tremendous variation exists in the percentage of non-citizens from state to state. Fifteen states contained less than 2 percent non-citizens among their voting age population as of 2004, whereas this rate exceeded 10 percent in seven states--with California topping the lot at 18 percent. (7) Thus, California recorded a turnout rate of 47 percent among its voting age population in 2004, but among adult citizens its turnout was a more healthy 57 percent. To not adjust turnout numbers for non-citizens would skew the results unfavorably against states such as California and Texas. Thus, the results for statewide turnout presented in Table 3 employ Citizen Voting Age Population as the denominator.

Turnout rates of citizens varied quite widely from state to state in 2004, with a difference of nearly 30 percent between the states with the highest and lowest percentages. Yet, a common pattern is evident among high-, medium-, and low-turnout states alike--namely that the percentage of citizens participating in choosing the president increased from 2000 to 2004. The only clear source of variation is that turnout tended to go up the most in the battleground states, where the candidates focused the vast majority of their time and resources in the final week of the 2004 campaign. In the eleven battleground states (shown in italics in Table 3) the mean increase in turnout was 6.6 percent. In contrast, the typical increase in voter participation in the other states was just 4.2 percent. Thus, greater interest in the presidential campaign nationwide can be estimated to have pushed turnout up about 4 percent. And in the relatively few places where there was extraordinary activity to get out the vote, the rate of increased participation was even greater.

The importance of intense political competition in getting people out to vote can also be seen in the instance of one hard-fought Senate campaign. The race between Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle and Republican challenger John Thune in South Dakota probably attracted more attention than any other statewide race in 2004. Interestingly, turnout in South Dakota went up 10 percent over the state's 2000 rate, more than any other state. Given that there was never any doubt that Bush would win South Dakota's electoral votes, it is readily apparent that the major force in driving turnout up must have been the heated Senate contest. In fact, South Dakota was the only state in 2004 that recorded more votes for a statewide race (391,092 votes for the Senate contest) than for the presidency (388,156 votes). (8)

Another factor that almost certainly accounts for some of the increase in turnout in 2004 involves technological improvements in voting machines in many states. Because not every state reports the number of people who actually cast ballots, analysts are forced to rely on the total number of votes cast for president as the numerator in calculating turnout. But as the nation learned during the 2000 Florida recount controversy, not everyone who votes has a presidential choice recorded, either because they fail to mark a choice or because of technical problems with their votes. A national study by Caltech and MIT estimated that this percentage was approximately 2.3 percent of all voters in 2000. (9) As a result of the Florida fiasco, a number of states undertook major efforts to reduce the percentage of lost votes. These efforts appear to have succeeded splendidly.

Florida itself decertified punch-card machines, which were widely blamed for the high rate of invalid votes in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward Counties in 2000. As a result of improved voting machinery between 2000 and 2004, the proportion of invalid votes for president fell from 6.4 to 0.5 percent in Palm Beach, from 4.4 to 0.5 percent in Miami-Dade, and from 2.5 to 0.4 percent in Broward. These numbers clearly played a part in boosting the proportion of Florida's citizens casting a vote for president from 57 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2004.

Similarly, Georgia took action to adopt touch-screen voting throughout the state after its secretary of state reported that 3.5 percent of Georgians who showed up at the polls in 2000 had no valid choice for president. Invalid votes were particularly a problem in large counties using punch-card equipment such as Fulton and DeKalb, which had rates of invalid votes of 6.3 and 3.7 percent, respectively; in 2004, both counties reported undervotes were reduced to a mere 0.3 percent. As was the case in Florida, Georgia also experienced a turnout increase, of 7 percent from 2000 to 2004. But unlike Florida, Georgia was never considered to be anything but a Bush state and an easy Senate pickup for the GOP, thereby making it a particularly clear case of turnout being driven up by more efficient voting machinery.

It might be thought that the introduction of punch-card machines in the 1960s played a role in the fall of turnout rates that became apparent soon afterward. However, The American Voter estimated in 1960 that 2 percent of votes cast were invalid (10)--a percentage virtually identical to the MIT/Caltech study conducted just after the 2000 election. Thus, if anything, technological changes in vote recording have probably had a favorable impact on turnout rates between 1960 and 2004.

Nevertheless, as can be seen in the right-hand column of Table 3, many non-southern states still have a long way to go to get their rate of citizen turnout up to what it was in 1960. Declines of 15 percentage points or more are found in seven states, and another nine states have experienced declines of at least 10 percentage points. These state-level data demonstrate just how serious the waning of turnout is in some parts of the United States, even with the increase in participation rates from 2000 to 2004. Notably, a fairly steep decline in turnout is quite evident in some of the states that permit Election Day registration, such as Idaho and Wyoming, as well as North Dakota, which does not require registration at all. And those who believe that the decline of turnout is overblown due to the increase of non-citizens in recent years should particularly note that these numbers reflect citizens only.

Conclusion: The Start of a Recovery or Just a Blip?

Although the increase in turnout rates from 2000 to 2004 is surely good news, the prospects for this being the start of an extended upward trend are less sanguine. The prospects for interest in the 2008 campaign even equaling that of 2004 are not so good. One only has to briefly reflect on the extraordinary events from the disputed outcome of the 2000 race, to the tragedy of September 11th, to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to realize that the period leading up to Election Day 2004 was no ordinary time. As the old Chinese curse goes: "May you live in interesting times." Were this level of interest in presidential campaigns to be continued through 2008 it would probably not be a good sign for the United States.

Like the substantial increase in turnout which occurred between 1988 and 1992, this most recent increase may well prove to be just a short-lived blip. It is noteworthy that turnout fell off sharply after 1992 even though the newly elected president worked with the Congress to take historic action to make voter registration easier. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (widely known as the "Motor Voter Act") succeeded in increasing the percentage of the public that was registered to vote, but this positive development was more than offset by declining interest in the subsequent two presidential elections. Unlike the situation in 1992, in the aftermath of the 2004 campaign the president and the Congress show no apparent interest in further legislation to boost America's still anemic rate of voter turnout.

The lack of momentum in Congress for legislation that might increase turnout is not due to a lack of good ideas on this subject. After the 2000 election, the National Commission on Federal Electoral Reform led by former Presidents Ford and Carter recommended that Congress make Election Day a national holiday--a proposal that was also endorsed by President Clinton. Based on data collected shortly after the 2004 election, there is good reason to suspect that turnout would have been even higher had Election Day been a holiday. A post-election survey by Harvard's Vanishing Voter project found that 24 percent of non-voters said that they didn't vote because they were so busy they didn't have time to go to the polls. Of course, some of these people just used time pressures as an easy excuse, but it does seem reasonable that in today's busy world that many of them would have voted had they had the day off from work or school. According to the Pew Center's post-election poll, 42 percent of voters who went to the polls on Election Day 2004 had to wait in line. Of these voters who faced lines, over 40 percent reported waiting at least half an hour. It does not take much of a leap of faith to infer that some people may have been discouraged by the prospect of waiting in long lines on a workday.

To those who question whether an Election Day holiday would really make a positive difference, I would simply ask them to consider whether they would recommend that Iraq or Afghanistan hold their elections on Tuesday like we do. It is doubtful that any American elections expert would recommend that these countries emulate our example in this respect. So if Americans wouldn't recommend Tuesday elections to other countries, why should the United States continue this practice? By joining the modern world and voting on a leisure day, it is likely that American turnout would increase.
TABLE 1

Nielsen Ratings of Presidential Debates, 1960-2004

 Presidential Debates Vice Presidential Debate

1960 59.4 --
1976 51.2 35.5
1980 58.9 --
1984 45.7 43.6
1988 36.4 33.6
1992 43.3 35.9
1996 27.7 19.7
2000 27.9 21.0
2004 33.3 28.1

Source: Nielsen Media Research.

TABLE 2

Voter Turnout Rates in 2004 and 1960 by Region

 2004 1960

Voting age population
Non-South 56 70
South 52 40
Citizen voting age population
Non-South 61 71
South 57 41

TABLE 3

Turnout of Citizens of Voting Age by State in 2004, and Changes from
2000 and 1960

 Turnout of Citizens Change from Change from
State in 2004 2000 1960

Minnesota# 77 +5 -1
Wisconsin# 74 +6 0
Maine 72 +4 -1
Oregon 71 +6 -2
New Hampshire# 70 +6 -10
Iowa 69 +5 -8
Alaska 69 0 +24
South Dakota 68 +10 -10
Colorado# 67 +7 -3
Michigan# 66 +7 -8
Ohio# 66 +10 -5
North Dakota 65 +4 -14
Vermont 65 0 -9
Washington 65 +4 -8
Massachusetts 65 +4 -13
Missouri 64 +6 -8
Florida# 64 +7 +14
Montana 64 +2 -7
Wyoming 63 +2 -10
Delaware 63 +5 -10
Connecticut 63 +2 -15
Pennsylvania# 62 +7 -9
Nebraska 62 +4 -9
Maryland 62 +7 +4
New Jersey 62 +6 -11
Kansas 61 +5 -9
Idaho 60 +4 -20
Virginia 60 +5 +27
Illinois 60 +4 -17
Louisiana 59 +4 +14
Kentucky 57 +4 0
California 57 +5 -10
New Mexico# 57 +7 -5
North Carolina 57 +5 +4
New York 57 0 -12
Rhode Island 56 -1 -21
Oklahoma 56 +6 -7
Tennessee 56 +7 +6
Alabama 56 +5 +25
D.C. 56 +2 --
Utah 55 +4 -20
Arizona 55 +7 +1
Nevada# 54 +6 -5
Indiana 54 +4 -23
Mississippi 54 +5 +29
West Virginia 53 +7 -25
Georgia 53 +7 +24
Texas 52 +5 +10
Arkansas 52 +3 +11
South Carolina 52 +5 +22
Hawaii 48 +4 -4

Note: States in italics were battleground states in the final week of
the 2004 campaign.

Note: States indicated with # were battleground states in the final
week of the 2004 campaign.


(1.) Philip E. Converse, Angus Campbell, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes, "Stability and Change in 1960: A Reinstating Election," American Political Science Review 55(1961): 269-70.

(2.) Michael P. McDonald and Samuel L. Popkin, "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter," American Political Science Review 95(2001): 963-74.

(3.) See Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

(4.) See Andre Blais, Louis Massicotte, and Antoine Yoshinaka, "Deciding Who Has the Right to Vote: A Comparative Analysis of Election Laws," Electoral Studies 20(2001): 41-62.

(5.) See President William Jefferson Clinton, "The Unfinished Work of Building One America," Message to Congress, January 15, 2001; and the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, "To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process," August 2001.

(6.) See Louis DeSipio, Counting on the Latino Vote: Latinos as a New Electorate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 131.

(7.) I am indebted to Michael McDonald of George Mason University for posting the Census Bureau's recent data on the percentages of non-citizens in each state on his Web site. For 1960 and 2000, I have relied on my own earlier research presented in Martin P. Wattenberg, Where Have All the Voters Gone? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), chap. 2.

(8.) South Dakota is the exception that proves the rule, however. When a variety of indicators of competitiveness of Senate and gubernatorial elections were tested in a multivariate model predicting turnout change, they consistently failed to show any significant impact.

(9.) The Caltech/MIT Voting Project, "Residual Votes Attributable to Technology: An Assessment of the Reliability of Existing Voting Equipment," Version 2, March 30, 2001, p. 7.

(10.) Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes, The American Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 95.

Martin P. Wattenberg is professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Where Have All the Voters Gone? and The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952-1996.
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Author:Wattenberg, Martin P.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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