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SPECIAL REPORT / Decision 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Vote Turnout Is Low Despite Tight Race

Interest: Only 50.7% of eligible voters cast ballots, an agency says. That's barely above 1996 count.

November 09, 2000|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans appear consistent in their ho-hum attitude toward voting, even during the tightest of presidential races.

Only 50.7% of eligible voters, or 104.5 million people, cast a ballot Tuesday, "putting it in the range of very low turnout," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C.

In 1996, 49.1% of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the Federal Election Commission. It will be weeks before the FEC releases its turnout estimates, but Gans' organization is a well-respected think tank on voter trends.

This year's lukewarm turnout is part of a 40-year trend of turnout decline. In fact, in the hard-fought race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, turnout was 62.8%.

The morning after a wild night of erroneous projections by television networks, some voting experts wondered if the premature predictions discouraged voter turnout. Television networks began announcing at 4:49 p.m. PST that Democrat Al Gore had won the critical electoral-rich state of Florida--a call the networks were forced to retract about two hours later.

"Folks who may have been on their way to vote after work may have been deterred because they didn't think their vote mattered," said Lindsey Kozberg, spokeswoman for the campaign of Republican George W. Bush in California.

But the Democrats were not complaining. "In an election without a lot of clear moments, the clear thing for us was how much support we had in California and the impressive turnout," said Peter Ragone, Gore's California campaign spokesman.

Beth Miller of the California secretary of state's office said that state officials were "very distressed" about the networks' erroneous call on Florida. "But we had good weather in the state. We're looking at the highest request for absentee ballots ever. We had the highest number of voters registered too."

Miller projected that turnout of eligible voters in California would exceed 53%.

But by using another measurement of voter turnout--that of registered voters--California turnout was expected to be 73%, Miller said, quite close to the 76% turnout figure state officials had predicted for registered voters.

In the Pacific Northwest, where turnout is traditionally higher than the national average, turnout was unremarkable. In Washington state, turnout of eligible voters was 59%--an increase of about 5% over the 1996 presidential election.

Oregon's turnout of eligible voters declined 1 percentage point to 56%.

Gans, who will publish his own report today about Tuesday's turnout, said predictions that the Bush-Gore horse race would lure people to the polls did not pan out. What's more, he said, television shots on election night of voters queuing up at the polls were misleading.

"Long lines don't translate into numbers," he said. "It's inefficient polling sites and long ballots."

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