How High Was Turnout in the 2004 Election?
For the past two days The New York Times, among other publications, has been reporting that this year's voter turnout was higher than in any presidential election since 1968 and may even have exceeded the turnout in that election. Citing figures provided by Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the Times reported that 59.5 percent of the voting age population turned out this year. This would be a truly remarkable achievement, if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn't. According to an October 24, 2004 press release from the U.S. Census Bureau, the current estimate of the voting age population of the United States is 217.8 million. Thus far, approximately 116 million votes have been tallied in the 2004 presidential election. That amounts to 53.3 percent of the current U.S. voting age population. In addition, an unknown number of late absentee and provisional ballots have not yet been counted. According to Mr. Gans, these could bring the final total of votes close to 120 million, although that seems overly optimistic.
Even if we accept this figure, however, that would only amount to 55 percent of the voting age population, not close to the level of turnout in the 1968 presidential election. Moreover, there are several reasons why it is highly unlikely that voter turnout in the United States will match the turnout levels of the 1960s any time in the near future. First, we have added 18-20 year-olds to the electorate and, even with an increase in turnout this year, the rate of turnout of this age group is far lower than that of those 21 and older. Second, the U.S. population today includes a much larger proportion of non-citizens who are ineligble to vote. During the 1960s, only about 2 percent of the voting age population consisted of non-citizens. Today, that figure is approximately 9 percent. When 2004 turnout is calculated as a proportion of the voting age citizen population, in fact, it was somewhere between 58 and 60 percent. But that is not what the Times and other media outlets have been reporting. The level of voter turnout in the 2004 election was very impressive compared with that of recent presidential elections, but as a proportion of the voting age population it was not nearly as high as that of the 1960s.