WASHINGTON – A drop in voter turnout in Tuesday’s election didn’t keep President Barack Obama from winning a second term.
Preliminary figures suggest fewer people voted this year than four years ago, when voters shattered turnout records as they elected Obama to his first term.
In most states, the numbers were even lower than in 2004, said Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Early figures from every state but Iowa showed a smaller turnout than in 2008, Gans said. Still, the full picture may not be known for weeks because much of the counting takes place after Election Day.
“This was a major plunge in turnout nationally,” said Gans, who estimated about 126 million Americans voted, for an overall turnout rate of about 57.5 percent.
In Arizona, almost 19 percent fewer people cast ballots than in 2008. In Maryland, where voters approved a ballot measure allowing gay marriage, turnout in the presidential race was running more than 7 percentage points behind 2008. Alaska saw a drop-off of nearly 25 percent over four years ago, when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, The Associated Press’ figures showed about 119.5 million people had voted in the White House race, but that number will increase as more votes are counted. In 2008, 131 million people cast ballots for president, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Experts calculate turnout in different ways based on who they consider eligible voters. A separate, preliminary estimate from George Mason University’s Michael McDonald put the 2012 turnout rate at 60 percent of eligible voters, a drop-off of more than 2 percentage points from 2008. McDonald said the 2012 figure would likely be revised as absentee votes were counted.
Turnout in the nine or so most competitive states appeared to be, on average, a few points higher than in other states that the presidential candidates largely ignored.
Large drops, according to the American University analysis, came in Eastern Seaboard states still reeling from the devastation from Superstorm Sandy, which wiped out power for millions and disrupted usual voting routines. About 12 percent fewer ballots had been counted in New York than in 2008. In New Jersey, it was more than 10 percent. The gap in New Jersey could narrow in the coming days because elections officials have given displaced residents in some areas until Friday to cast special email ballots.
Best efforts be darned, making it to the polls in the wake of Sandy may have simply been too much for some affected voters. In Hoboken, N.J., Anthony Morrone said he’s never missed a vote — until now.
“No time, no time to vote, too much to do,” said Morrone, 76, as he surveyed the exterior of his home: a pile of junked refrigerators, a car destroyed by flooding and a curbside mountain of waterlogged debris.
In other areas not affected by the storm, a host of factors could have contributed to waning voter enthusiasm, Gans said. The 2012 race was one of the nastiest in recent memory, leaving many voters feeling turned off. With Democrats weary from a difficult four years and Republicans splintered by a divisive primary, neither party was particularly enthused about their own candidate. Stricter voting restrictions adopted by many states may also have kept some voters away from the polls.
“Beyond the people with passion, we have a disengaged electorate,” Gans said. “This was a very tight race, there were serious things to be decided.”
Decided they were — by the millions of voters who, in many cases, braved all kinds of inconveniences to make sure their voices were heard.
Some voters in South Carolina’s Richland County waited more than four hours to vote, and leaders from both parties blamed the delays on broken voting machines. Officials in Virginia and New Hampshire reported many voters were still waiting to vote when polls closed in the evening. In major battleground states like Ohio and Florida, lines snaked back and forth as voters waited patiently to cast their ballots.
“I’ve been waiting for four years to cast this vote,” said Robert Dan Perry, 64, as he did so for Romney in Zebulon, N.C.
Both Obama and Republican Mitt Romney made voter turnout a top priority in the waning days of an intensely close race. But for months leading up to Election Day, both candidates were obsessed with that tiny sliver of undecided voters.
It may be that those who were still undecided Tuesday decided just not to show up, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“Everyone was talking about how the Democrats are unenthusiastic and the Republicans are fired up,” Kondik said. “It sounds like that was all talk.”
One bright spot this year was the number of early and mail-in ballots cast. Before polls opened on Election Day, more than 32 million people had voted, either by mail or in person, in 34 states and the District of Columbia. In a number of states, including Iowa, Maryland and Montana, early voting appeared to far exceed totals from 2008.
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