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Study plays down 'convenience voting'

Efforts don't raise, may hurt turnout

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / December 18, 2008
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A study of turnout in the November election concludes that balloting methods designed to make it easier for citizens to vote before Election Day do not increase voter turnout, and may even decrease it.

Against a backdrop of a dramatic overall increase in nationwide turnout to the highest level in nearly half a century, the report by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University found that "convenience voting - mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, and even election-day registration - does not help turnout and may hurt."

Of the 12 states that saw a decline in turnout from 2004, 10 had some form of convenience voting, the analysis found, and of the 13 with the greatest increases, seven had no special provisions to make it easier to vote.

Curtis Gans, director of the center, theorized that "all the devices which allow voters to vote during a period before Election Day have the effect of diffusing mobilization activities over several days rather than one day when the concentration of resources would have had the most effect."

Overall, 131.26 million voters, or 63 percent of the estimated eligible voting-age population, cast ballots for president, up from 60.6 percent in 2004. It is the highest turnout since 1960, when 64.8 percent of eligible voters voted, said Gans, who tabulated final and official returns from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It also was the third consecutive presidential election marked by a jump in turnout.

Before the election, Gans had predicted at least 132 million voters would cast ballots and others had predicted it might even be higher. The incomplete and unofficial returns reported on election night were well below those predictions. But the final calculations of turnout by Gans and others, which include write-ins and mailed ballots, show that the total was close to initial expectations of a significant increase over 2004.

Gans and other researchers based their figures on the estimate of US citizens of voting age in their computations rather than the number of registered voters, because the quality and accuracy of voting lists vary widely from state to state.

Gans said "a major surge" in turnout among African-American voters and organizing efforts of "college-educated youth" contributed to both the higher turnout and the decisive victory by Democrat Barack Obama.

A Boston Globe tabulation of official state returns showed that Obama got 9.53 million more votes than Senator John McCain, or nearly 7.3 percent of the total.

The Gans study also showed that among eligible voters, 31.6 percent voted for Democrats compared with 25 percent for Republicans in contested races for the US House of Representatives. That's the largest margin in a presidential year since the post-Watergate election of 1976 and broke a string of three presidential elections in which the GOP took a larger share of votes in competitive House races. Democrats had more votes in congressional contests in the previous nine presidential cycles, from 1960 to 1992.

Gans found that Republicans lost ground in almost every region and enjoy a "durable advantage" in only a diminishing number of mainly white or Deep South states. He said the GOP is now out of contention or approaching that status in New England, where 43 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for Democrats, compared with 15 percent for Republicans; the West, where the split was about 35 percent to 20 percent; and the mid-Atlantic states, where the margin was 34 percent to 21 percent.

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