for National Geographic News
Tomorrow an "I Voted" sticker will be the United States' most ubiquitous fashion accessory. Voter turnout in the 2008 election is expected to be the highest in at least a century, in part due to technological twists on old-fashioned campaigning techniques. Furthermore, the concept of the U.S. as a nation of disengaged non-voters is a myth, experts say.
For years, pundits saw a picture of increasing voter apathy in the United States, as turnout appeared to plummet from the 1970s to 1990s.
But that picture was misleading, says political scientist Michael McDonald of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, we had a much smaller noncitizen population than today, and voter turnout was always measured as the percentage of the whole voting age population that went to the polls," McDonald said.
But immigration boomed in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, creating a large pool of citizens who were of voting age, but not eligible to vote. Most estimates of turnout during those decades still put the noncitizen population into the mix, creating a false sense that turnout was spiraling downward.
Today number crunchers like McDonald try to get at turnout of eligible voters only—eliminating not only noncitizens, but also prisoners and felons who are ineligible to vote. Once those calculations are included, turnout of eligible U.S. voters looks fairly steady since the 1970s. Until this year, that is.
More Voter-to-Voter Campaigning
The McCain-Obama election "will have the highest turnout since 1908," which saw 66 percent of eligible voters at the polls, McDonald predicted.
He pointed to the rediscovery of an old-school campaign strategy as one major reason for this year's increased participation.
Campaigns have returned to personal, voter-to-voter contact, which dominated in the 19th century, when voter turnout was the highest in U.S. history—often topping 75 percent of eligible voters.
Today's voter-to-voter contact has technological twists never imagined by Gilded Age campaign operatives—including text messaging, social networking Web sites, homemade YouTube videos, and email recruiting and fundraising.
In 12 states nonpartisan election officials have joined the revolution by reaching out to young voters via Facebook and Twitter, a network that allows users to post very brief updates of their activities in real time.
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