Tight Contests Draw Big Voter Turnout
By: Wall Street Journal
Historic ‘Firsts’ Heighten Interest; Records May Fall
By JUNE KRONHOLZ
Close races in both parties appeared to have sparked intense voter interest in yesterday’s polls, and turnout seemed likely to hit record numbers in many states, following unexpectedly large showings in last month’s primaries.
In California, 4.1 million voters cast ballots through early voting procedures before polls opened yesterday. That would suggest a total turnout of nine million of the state’s 22 million eligible voters, said Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project, a research center at Virginia’s George Mason University. Four years ago, California’s turnout was 6.6 million, the center reported.
In Tennessee, a number equal to 10% of the state’s 3.3 million active registered voters cast their ballots before election day. In Colorado, the number of absentee ballots cast was nearly double that of four years ago, the Associated Press reported. And in Connecticut, several towns had to photocopy blank ballots to meet demand. In Stratford, officials put a call out to the town’s printer for more ballots long before the polls closed at 8 p.m., the AP reported.
In Virginia, which doesn’t vote until next week, the AP quoted the state board of elections as saying it had received 400 calls by midafternoon, many from voters who wanted to know why their voting places were closed.
More than 100 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in the 24 states holding primaries or caucuses yesterday. Typically, about 15% of each state’s voters show up on primary day. Many states don’t allow independents to vote in primaries, further limiting turnout.
In some states, including Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, turnout was boosted by decisions to move up the primary date so voters would have a bigger say in the selection process. By the time Connecticut went to the polls in 2004, 20 other states had voted, and only 5.7% of eligible Connecticut voters bothered to turn out.
The bigger reason for the huge turnout, though, seems to be the excitement caused by close races in both parties and the presence on Democratic ballots of the first woman, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, and the first African-American, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who both had a serious shot at the nomination.
The half-dozen states that voted before yesterday reported huge turnouts, a suggestion of things to come for the rest of the primary season if the races remain tight. In New Hampshire, 53% of eligible voters showed up for the Jan. 8 primary, up from 30% in 2004; in South Carolina, 34% voted this year, up from 9% four years ago.
The Democratic race is nowhere near decided, but today nearly every candidate is declaring some victory. On the Republican side, John McCain’s key wins bring him closer to solidifying front-runner status.
Voters suggested they had been watching the race closely. Roger Goss, a 62-year-old San Francisco lawyer, said he was voting for Sen. Obama rather than Sen. Clinton because he “didn’t like what Bill Clinton has been doing in his attacks,” a reference to several comments the former president made about Sen. Obama before the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina last month.
As in earlier primaries, voters seemed to be deciding on candidates at the last minute. Exit polls in Georgia showed that 18% of voters made up their minds in the last day, while another 17% said they decided in the final three days.
In San Francisco, Peter Fairfield said he went to bed Monday night thinking he was going to vote for Sen. Clinton. “I voted for Bill, so I thought, well, it’s her turn,” said the 57-year-old small-business owner, a member of the Green Party who brought his Airedale Terrier, Dagmar, to the polling place. “But this morning, I just felt like Obama is representing a new politics and Hillary is representing the old. So I voted for him.”
Likewise, Robert Wynne of Atlanta, 56, head of an insurance brokerage, said he wavered between Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney until yesterday morning. “McCain is in the good-old-boy network in Washington,” he said he decided. “We need to get some change.”
In the Kansas City, Kan., suburb of Overland Park, real-estate agent Marilyn Dugan arrived 15 minutes late for the 6 p.m. start of the Democratic caucus at a Unitarian church. Two hours later, she was still standing in a line so long that she couldn’t see the doors of the church. A church official told her the Democratic Party had predicted turnout at the church of about 300 but more than 3,500 voted in the first two hours.
Ms. Dugan, 53, said the line appeared to be populated with people two and three decades younger than her, virtually all of them loudly supporting Mr. Obama. She said her linemates included several moderate Republicans who said they are switching parties.
–Jim Carlton in San Francisco and Stephanie Chen in Atlanta contributed to this article.
Write to June Kronholz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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