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CAMBRIDGE, MA – Voter turnout rose sharply in the 2004 election, reaching its highest level since 1968. According to the Vanishing Voter post-election survey by the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government, first-time voters accounted for a large share of the increase.
First Time Voters
Issues fueled the turnout increase in 2004. Pre-election polls indicated that most Americans felt that the election of 2004 was the most important in years. Indeed, a large majority of both first-time voters (92 percent)
and repeat voters (86 percent) cited election issues as a driving force in
their decision to vote. Both groups, and first-time voters particularly,
were also motivated by their dislike of a particular candidate. Half of the
repeat voters and nearly two-thirds of the first-time voters said they
voted in part "because I really disliked one of the candidates."
The greatest difference in the turnout decisions of first-time voters and
repeat voters was the impact of personal contact. Compared with repeat
voters, first-time voters were substantially less likely (78 percent vs. 96
percent) to claim that "it is a citizen's duty to vote in every election."
Personal contact helped overcome their weaker sense of civic duty. Three
times as many first-time voters---61 percent vs. 21 percent---said that a
reason they voted was because "my family or friends encouraged me to vote."
The numerous get-out-the-vote efforts by groups and luminaries during the
2004 campaign also made a difference on Election Day. Compared with repeat voters, first-time voters were more likely to say (14 percent vs. 4
percent) that a reason they voted was that a "group or organization helped
me to register to vote." They were also more likely to say (7 percent vs. 2
percent) they became interested "because so many celebrities were
encouraging people to vote." Americans who had been eligible to vote in
previous presidential elections but voted for the first time this year
mentioned the latter reason more frequently. Roughly one in seven---14
percent---of these first-time voters said that celebrity involvement
affected their decision to cast a ballot.
Although turnout was up sharply in 2004, tens of millions of vote-eligible
Americans did not vote on Election Day. A fourth of these non-voters said
that they have virtually no interest in voting.
Some of those who expressed interest in voting but did not vote this time
gave reasons that indicate they would be hard to lure to the polls in
almost any case. Eighteen percent of the interested non-voters said they
are disgusted with politics. Fourteen percent said they find politics
befuddling. Mobility also affected turnout. One in five of the interested
non-voters said they didn't have any way to get to the polls.
Other reasons cited by non-voters who expressed interest in voting suggest
that changes in election law would encourage higher turnout. For example,
32 percent of the interested non-voters said that they had moved recently
and hadn't yet reregistered. In many democracies, registration is renewed
automatically when a registered voter moves to a new residence. America's
registration system, which places the burden of registration on the
individual rather than, as in Europe, on officials, depresses turnout in
other ways, too. One in eight of non-voters with an interest in voting said
they simply do not know how to go about registering.
Some of the ballot-related issues raised by the news media also depressed
turnout. Six percent of the interested non-voters said they had thought
they were registered but found out otherwise when they went to the polls.
Three percent said they were discouraged from voting because they worried
that their right to vote would be challenged if they went to the polls. Six
percent said they planned to vote but then discovered that the lines at
their polling place were excessively long.
Although it is difficult to estimate precisely the combined effect of these
various factors, there is little question that several million more
Americans would have cast a ballot on Election Day if the country's
registration and voting system were more welcoming.
The results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1010
adults conducted November 3-7, 2004. The survey has a sampling error of
±4%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center
on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F.
Kennedy School of Government. For more information go to: