2008 Results: Fewer White Voters, While Minorities Set Records
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America's electorate may have changed in striking and subtle ways in 2008 compared to 2004, according to a preliminary study by a national voter registration group that found sizeable numbers of white voters did not vote in battleground states this November while record numbers of minorities turned out and voted.
"The overall message is total ballots cast by white Americans was down, while African Americans and Latinos cast way more ballots than they did in 2004," said Jody Herman, a researcher with Project Vote. "And young voters, age 18-29, cast over 1.8 million more ballots than in 2005, which is a 9 percent increase. That increase was greater than any other age group."
Nationally, 3.35 million more people voted for president in 2008 than four years ago, according to unofficial state results compiled by Project Vote. That slight increase in voters, and lower-than-expected turnout in swing states like Ohio, has left election administrators and academics pondering what happened in a year where the public appeared to be very engaged. Most academics stressed it was too early to draw any conclusion about a changing electorate, because states are not done counting votes.
"They're still counting the ballots in California. They're still counting the ballots in Missouri. They're still counting the ballots in Ohio," said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. But Sabato, who said he spent Monday on a plane reviewing 2008 exit polls, said the election's broad outlines were clear.
"I think absolutely white Republicans did not show up," he said. "They were turned off, disillusioned. They did not turn out. Democratic voters did come out. They couldn't wait to vote."
"It's the same electorate but with different turnout rates with one exception; presumably the Latino electorate is actually growing as more and more Latinos becomes citizens," said Alexander Keyssar, a Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Still, the preliminary research by Project Vote, which organized registration drives in two dozen states in 2008, was striking. It found 1.18 million fewer whites voted on November 4 compared to November 2004.
In contrast, 2.88 million more African Americans, 1.52 million more Latinos, 67,000 more Asian Americans and 1.32 million members of other minorities, voted this fall compared to four years ago. That is 1.18 million fewer white voters and 6.96 million more minority voters.
Project Vote said its findings would be adjusted as more data is available. However, a report issued by the group last year, "Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate," concluded, "If all eligible minorities had voted at the rate of non-Hispanic whites, more than 7.5 million additional people would have participated in the 2006 elections."
Thus, the appearance of an African-American presidential candidate with a sympathetic message may have prompted the nation's minorities to vote at levels approaching white voters -- if final state vote counts do not upend Project Vote's figures. Its findings also suggest the U.S. electorate is not an inflexible assembly of voting constituencies, but has segments that are mobilized -- or demobilized -- depending on the year, candidate and message.
"I wouldn't look at the overall turnout numbers," said one registration expert who reviewed Project Vote's numbers but did not want to be quoted. "The story becomes interesting when you look at the specifics of who tuned out and who didn't."
Project Vote looked at ballot-casting statistics in seven battleground states. In four of those states -- Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico -- there were fewer white voters this year compared to 2004. All those states and Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada, also saw an increase in Latino voters in 2008. And all the states, except for New Mexico, saw an increase in African-American voters compared to 2004.