Image: Voters line up in Detroit
Robin Buckson  /  The Detroit News via AP
Voters wait outside the polling location at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Detroit on Tuesday.
updated 11/5/2008 4:11:03 PM ET 2008-11-05T21:11:03

Voters cast their ballots in numbers not seen in at least 40 years, as millions of Americans picked their president early and waited in lines that stretched the lengths of blocks and buildings.

It looks like 133.3 million Americans will have voted for president this election, based on preliminary results from the country’s precincts tallied and projections for absentee ballots, said Michael McDonald of George Mason University. Using his methods, that would give 2008 a 62.5 percent turnout rate, he said.

Both numbers are estimates and may change as officials count more absentee and provisional ballots.

McDonald suggested the turnout to be about equal to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, but not higher than 1960 when John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon. The turnout rate then was 63.8 percent.

The total voting in 2008 easily outdistanced 2004's 122.3 million, which had been the highest grand total of voters before.

Lower turnout estimate
But Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University and dean of turnout experts, estimated the total votes to be between 126.5 million and 129 million.

Different experts calculate turnout rates in different ways based on whom they consider eligible voters.

What's most interesting about early results is not just how many people voted but the shifting demographic of American voters, said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard and MIT.

Using exit polling data, Ansolabehere determined that whites made up 74 percent of the 2008 electorate. That's down considerably from 81 percent in 2000 because of increase in black and Hispanic voting, he said.

"That's a big shift in terms of demographic composition of the electorate," Ansolabehere said early Wednesday.

GOP vote rates drop
Breakdown by party voting also shows that Republican turnout rates are down quite a bit, while Democratic turnout rates are up, Gans said.

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Republican states, such as Wyoming and South Dakota, saw turnout drop. "I think they were discouraged," Gans said.

Experts pointed to a weak economy and a lively campaign that promised a history-making result for the high turnout.

North Carolina had the greatest increase in turnout, because of close presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races, Gans said. Other states where turnout increased were Indiana, Georgia and Alabama.

Ansolabehere said young voters didn't show up in the advertised wave, but others disagreed.

"Young voters have dispelled the notion of an apathetic generation and proved the pundits, reporters and political parties wrong by voting in record numbers today," said Heather Smith, the executive director of Rock the Vote. "The Millennial generation is making their mark on politics and shaping our future."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Voters turn out in droves

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