ON ELECTION DAY, three weeks ago today, I stood in line for about an hour and 15 minutes to vote. The line, which must have formed before 6:30 a.m., snaked in and out of the halls of the school where my polling place is held and then more than a block up the sidewalk in front of the school.
In the 15 years I have gone to this polling place, I had never seen such a crowd or stood in line for more than about 15 minutes, even on the busiest days.
I don't really know what accounted for this apparent (though I'm not sure it was real -- It could be that, by day's end, we had a normal volume of voters at my precinct) surge of voters. One could have interpreted from this scene a sense that there was something truly big going on in American politics; a new resurgence in civic participation that has been sorely lacking in the land of the free. It could also have been a reflection of how worried and unsettled everyone felt as the economic crisis continued to unfold. Maybe more people were thinking that voting was the least they could do to respond to the downturn. Or it could have been that people had heard there were going to be a lot of people at the polls so they just showed up earlier than usual.
For all the electricity in the air around the November 4 elections, the unofficial turnout was 61.4 percent of eligible voters (or 130.8 million ballots cast) in the race for President. That's an improvement over 2004, but only of 1.3 percentage points. And it's still below the 1968 peak year level of 62.5 percent.
In 21 states turnout of eligible voters dropped between 2004 and 2008 by as by as little as .2 percent and as much as 8.1 percent. That means a sizable majority saw a rise in turnout by a similar range. North Carolina was the big gainer at 8.2 percent; turnout there was 66 percent. My own state of Maryland saw turnout go up by a respectable 4.9 percent for a total of 67.8 percent of eligible voters. Minnesota's turnout topped all the states and territories with 77.9 percent, but that represented a half a percentage point drop compared to 2004.
I guess we should all be pleased that turnout is heading in the right direction and represents just under a two-thirds super-majority of all those who have the opportunity to carry out the most basic -- and essential of duties as a citizen. At least it's headed in the right direction now.
But, as I asked after the mid-term elections two years ago, when 40.4 percent of eligible voters cast votes nationwide, why can't we do better? In a classroom, 61 percent would be, what, a grade of D? And where are the other 39 percent? Other than the sick and incapacitated, what could have been more important that day that they couldn't make it to the polls?
Many eyes this year were on the so-called "young" vote, which has, in recent years been the most difficult to mobilize. Many thought that Barack Obama's appeal and his brilliantly executed online campaign (which speaks to younger voters through the channels they use), would boost the young vote. Voters ages 18-29 turned out at a higher rate in 2008 than in 2004 in several battleground states.
But analyzing exit polling data, the Pew Research Center showed that, as a share of the total electorate, 18 to 29-year-old voters only increased from 17 to 18 percent. Again, it's the right direction (I'm trying to look on the bright side). Says Pew, "Young voters increased their share of the total electorate by five points in Indiana, four points in North Carolina and Virginia -- all of which experienced sizeable increases in overall voter turnout -- and by lesser amounts in six other key states. By contrast, the young declined as a share of the total in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio."
No, the picture is not bleak, and the momentum (if we can call two straight Presidential elections momentum) is worth some celebration. But can't we do better, people?