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The Turnout and a New Habit

Josh Berthume's picture

Recently I wrote a piece for Quorum Report about how the massive Democratic turnout in Texas would affect the dynamics of the general election. I mostly concentrated on the capabilities of the Texas Democratic Party to make use of the new information collected during the primary and gave very few words to what the overall turnout picture would look like.

Yesterday the Politico's David Mark took a look at the record-setting primary turnout in several states and spoke to several election officials about what the turnout figures could be like and — just as importantly — whether many state election administrations will be able to handle that turnout.

What he finds is pretty interesting. Voter turnout in the 2004 general election was 61 percent, the highest it had been since 1968. That sounds pretty big, and assuming you think increased voter turnout is a good thing, it was an improvement for the American electorate. Now election officials in many states are projecting that turnout in 2008 could surpass that, or more properly will surpass that by quite a bit.

“November could see the highest turnout of my lifetime,” said Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer, 63. “Turnout could be up to as much as 80 percent.”

I'm not sure what the context is here, whether Brewer is referring to national turnout or the projected turnout in Arizona, but either way, 80 percent is up there with turnout in Europe. The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance tells us that this is a vast improvement over the average American turnout from 1945 - 1998, which was 48.3 percent over 26 elections, both presidential and legislative.

In political science departments at universities and in civics classes at colleges all around the United States, students often ask the same question: why don't more people vote? Since 1968, it may have been that people were dispirited or felt like their votes didn't matter. Maybe people didn't have daily evidence that politics affects them in a real way on many levels of their lives.

I think 9/11 changed that. I don't want to pull a Giuliani here, but that day really did alter the way most Americans look at politics and the world in general. So 9/11 and the wars that came after being closely followed by a record general election turnout makes sense to me.

I also am of the opinion that as far as election administrations go, most electoral problems caused by a lack of capabilities in the face of increased turnout are likely to work themselves out, while at the same time altering the system in a way that prepares for and fosters increased turnout in future elections.

Not every presidential primary will be an all-nighter nail-biter like the Obama-Clinton contest has become, but perhaps this increased interest will be a generational thing we pass to our children. The most truthful thing one can say about voting is that it is a learned behavior, a habit; here's hoping it becomes a habit the citizens of this country cannot kick.

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