2012 Election Turnout Dips Below 2008 and 2004 Levels: Number Of Eligible Voters Increases By Eight Million, Five Million Fewer Votes Cast

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Ashley Berrang
(202) 637-1456
aberrang@bipartisanpolicy.org

Thursday, November 8, 2012

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Washington, D.C. – A cliff-hanger presidential election, major issues at stake, an estimated $6 billion spent in the 2012 campaigns and an eight million person increase in the eligible voters all failed to sustain the upward momentum for turnout from 2004 and 2008.

Voter turnout dipped from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting in 2008 to an estimated 57.5 in 2012. That figure was also below the 60.4 level of the 2004 election but higher than the 54.2 percent turnout in the 2000 election.

Despite an increase of over eight million citizens in the eligible population, turnout declined from 131 million voters in 2008 to an estimated 126 million voters in 2012 when all ballots are tallied. Some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote.

The turnout percentage of eligibles voting was down from 2008 in every state and the District of Columbia, except two – Iowa and Louisiana. The turnout numbers of citizens who cast ballots were down in every state but six – Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Turnout was down for both Republicans and Democrats, falling 4.2 percentage points for the Democrats from 33.0 percent of eligible citizens in 2008 to 28.8 this year; and 1.2 percentage points for the GOP from 28.4 in 2008 to 27.2 this year.

These were some of the highlights of a preliminary report on turnout and registration in the 2012 general election released today by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and the Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE). This report is the fourth in a series of reports released by the two organizations.

Other highlights of the report:

The winner-take-all aspect of choosing electors, effectively limiting presidential electoral competition to a handful of competitive states, has a major impact on turnout. In swing or battleground states, where large amounts of money are spent on saturation television advertising, massive mobilization efforts and the location of the majority of campaign forays - the average turnout in this year’s election was 62.7 percent of eligible voters. Across the rest of the nation, average turnout was 54.8 percent.

Seven states set record lows for overall presidential year turnout – Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia. There were four record Democratic turnout lows - in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia. The Republicans achieved record high turnout in two states - Alabama and North Carolina - and one record low in Hawaii.

The highest overall turnout was recorded in Minnesota with 74.6 percent of eligible citizens voting, followed by Wisconsin (71.3), Iowa (69.2), New Hampshire (68.6 percent and still counting) and Massachusetts (66.6 percent) - likely due to the Warren/Brown race for the Senate.

The lowest overall state turnout - excluding two states, Arizona and Alaska, which still have many ballots to count - was in Hawaii at 43.6 percent of eligible citizens, followed by West Virginia (45.1), New York (46.3), Oklahoma (48.5) and Texas (48.9).

The highest Democratic turnout was in the District of Columbia which recorded a 47.9 percent turnout, followed by Massachusetts (40.4), Vermont (40.3) Minnesota (39.4) and Wisconsin (37.7). The lowest Democratic turnout occurred in Utah at 12.5 percent of citizen voters, followed by Wyoming (15.8), West Virginia (16.0), Oklahoma (16.1) and Arkansas (18.1).

There were only two states that increased their turnout in 2012 compared with 2008 – Louisiana which increased its turnout by .14 percentage points and Iowa which increased by .11. Excepting the states which are still counting large numbers ballots, those whose rates declined most were New York (minus 21 percentage points) and New Jersey (minus 15.6), probably in part due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Other states whose turnout rates dropped sharply were Maine (minus 8.1), Kansas (-7.4), Vermont (-7.4) and Rhode Island (-7.3).

Democratic turnout also increased in only two states and the same states—Louisiana (up .4 percentage points) and Iowa (0.1) The largest decreases were in New York (minus 7.8 percentage points), DC (-7.1), Utah (-6.7), and Illinois (6.4).

Republican turnout increased in 15 states led by North Dakota (up 2.7 percentage points), followed by Wisconsin (2.5), Utah (1.6), Iowa (1.5) and Massachusetts (1.1). The largest decreases were in Indiana (minus 5.1 percentage points), followed by New Jersey (-4.7), New York (-4.5), Oklahoma (-3.7) and Mississippi (-3.4).

It is not clear from the results of this election whether this year’s low turnout is a one-time setback to the rise in turnout which started with the 2000 election or a return to the slide in participation that began in 1964 and continued, with two one-election interruptions, through 1998. That question will likely be answered by the 2014 midterm election and the 2016 presidential election. This report also includes an update to the BPC/CSAE report on registration, adding three states that have certified their registration, including one state that has partisan registration. This brings the total of the states that have reported registration to 37 and the states with partisan registration to 22.

These revised figures further support the trend in the states which have partisan registration toward increased registration for neither party, rising for the 13th consecutive presidential election year. Based on raw and unadjusted registration figures, Democratic registration is 36 percent of eligible voters, down by 2.2 percentage points from 2008; Republican registration is 27.2, unchanged from 2008 and on the same level as it has been for several election cycles. Republican registration has remained steady due to an increase in Southern and Mountain states registration that have compensated for losses in the West and New England. Registration for neither major party is at 23.8 percent of eligible voters, up from 22.0 in 2008 and now nipping at the heels of the two major parties.

Click here to read the full report.

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