Voter Turnout at 51 Percent; Media Coverage, Spending Up

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - Voter turnout in the quadrennial presidential elections has been falling steadily since 1960, when 62.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the race between Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon.

Turnout on Tuesday increased slightly over the 1996 total, but it did not reverse a long-term erosion in voter participation, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

On Tuesday, 50.7 percent of the 205.8 million voting-age Americans cast ballots in the race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, the committee reported.

That figure compares to 49 percent turnout in 1996, when President Clinton won re-election over Republican challenger Senator Bob Dole.

However, U.S. voter turnout lags significantly behind other democracies around the world.

"We don't make it easy for people to vote," said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at Mary Washington College in Virginia.

"It's not on the weekend, it's not on a holiday and these are the kinds of things that make it hard for some people to turn out," said Farnsworth, who favors making Election Day a holiday in order to increase voter participation.

In terms of expense, Tuesday's election brings to an end the costliest political campaign in U.S. history. Roughly $2 billion was spent by the candidates on congressional and presidential races and another $1 billion by outside groups who used "soft money" to buy issue ads.

An additional $1 billion is estimated to have been spent on races for state offices.

The Bush campaign reportedly raised $102.7 million through Oct. 18, setting a record for the most money raised by a presidential candidate. Bush's total doubles the amount raised by Dole in 1996.

Many political analysts say the high cost to eligible candidates of participating in the election process is a corrupting influence and justifies the need for campaign finance reform.

"If we had a group of foreign observers monitoring this election in the United States, they would probably conclude it was illegitimate because of the dominant role of big money in corrupting politics, and all the things that prevent a third party and small party candidates from participating," said Barbara Ehrenreich, a political commentator and author.

If Bush ends up winning, the Gore camp will have a couple of legitimate issues to complain about, Farnsworth said.

"The first is Ralph Nader. There's only a couple of thousand votes separating Bush and Gore in Florida, and Nader got about 90,000 votes in that state," he said.

But the most potentially disruptive influence on this year's election was the mistake made by the TV networks in calling the results too soon.

"The TV networks called Florida before 8 o'clock Eastern time, which gave people on the West Coast a signal that Gore was likely to win the election. That increased the vote for Nader by voters who were worried that voting for Nader would mean that Bush would be elected," Farnsworth said.

"When the networks backed off two hours later, people had cast their votes. We have no way of knowing what kind of impact that mistake had. It may very well be that Bush will owe his victory, if it comes to that, to Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw - and who would have expected that?"