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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

2008 Voter Turnout

Q: Is it true that 36 percent to 37 percent of eligible voters failed to vote in the recent presidential election?

A:Actually, the number is slightly higher than that: 38.4 percent of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot for president in 2008. Even more — 39.9 percent — didn’t vote in 2006.

Dr. Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has compiled voter turnout statistics on the national and state level since 1980. In the 2008 general election, 61.6 percent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot for president, according to McDonald. In all, 132.6 million Americans voted.

Some, but not all, states report total ballots cast, a figure that includes blank ballots or those with votes for multiple candidates for the same office. But even when McDonald tallies those figures, and includes estimates for states that don’t report such numbers, the turnout creeps up to only 62.3 percent.

McDonald’s figures are current as of Dec. 24 and are unlikely to change much. As he writes, “All states have now posted offical [sic] or certified results. There are a few minor outstanding issues that may revise these numbers slightly.”

Minnesota, where the recount battle between incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman and comedian Al Franken has raged on for weeks, had the highest voter turnout, at 77.8 percent. Hawaii and West Virginia are tied for the lowest turnout, with 50.6 percent each.

McDonald’s figures are also quite similar to early projections released two days after the election by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. CSAE’s report, based on tabulated votes by the Associated Press and some estimates, said that voter turnout was between 60.7 percent and 61.7 percent of eligible voters. The methodology used by McDonald and CSAE is not the same. For instance, they use different estimates for eligible voters, with CSAE employing a number that excludes non-citizens from the over-18 population in the U.S. and McDonald calculating a figure that also adjusts for felons who can’t vote and Americans living abroad. CSAE says those other factors wouldn’t significantly alter the eligible-voter figure. Regardless, it’s worth noting that the two entities published very similar results.

What Happened to All That Record-Turnout Hype?

Before Americans went to the polls on November 4, much was made in media reports about record levels of voter registration and high enthusiasm levels among the electorate. And while the 61.6 percent turnout number doesn’t seem that impressive – in 2004, after all, 60.1 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for the highest office – it is the highest turnout in the U.S. in decades. As the CSAE report says, “If the rate of voting exceeds 61.0 percent of eligibles, turnout will have been the highest since 1964.”

But why was it not even higher? Republican turnout, according to CSAE, dropped, while Democrats voted in higher numbers. The percentage of those voting for the Republican presidential ticket dropped by 1.3 percentage points and those voting for the Democratic ticket went up by 2.6 percentage points from 2004. Curtis Gans, the center’s director, said he, too, thought even more Americans would vote in 2008. “Many people were fooled (including this student of politics although less so than many others) by this year’s increase in registration (more than 10 million added to the rolls), citizens’ willingness to stand for hours even in inclement weather to vote early, the likely rise in youth and African American voting, and the extensive grassroots organizing network of the Obama campaign into believing that turnout would be substantially higher than in 2004. But we failed to realize that the registration increase was driven by Democratic and independent registration and that the long lines at the polls were mostly populated by Democrats.”

As for the youth vote, Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates that 52 percent to 53 percent of eligible voters under the age of 30 went to the polls in 2008. That’s up from 48 percent in 2004. CIRCLE’s figures are based on CSAE’s projections, exit poll data and Census population numbers.

– Lori Robertson


McDonald, Michael. 2008 General Election Turnout Rates. United States Elections Project, George Mason University, accessed 7 Jan. 2009.

Gans, Curtis. “Much-hyped Turnout Record Fails to Materialize; Convenience Voting Fails to Boost Balloting.” Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University, 6 Nov. 2008.

Youth Turnout Rate Rises to at Least 52%.” CIRCLE, Tufts University, accessed 7 Jan. 2009.