WASHINGTON - Intense voter registration drives and keen interest in the presidential race put Tuesday's election on track to draw the heaviest turnout in years. Officials were watching whether it would approach the 1960 benchmark, when about two-thirds of eligible voters came out to back John Kennedy or Richard Nixon.
More than 120 million people were expected to cast votes Tuesday, which, if forecasts were correct, would be about 60 percent of eligible voters, according to Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Slightly more than 54 percent of voters, about 105.4 million, cast ballots in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. This time, with 95 percent of precincts reporting, 110.8 million had cast ballots.
President Clinton's 1996 re-election bid drew only 49 percent of eligible voters, about 96.3 million. But Clinton's 1992 race for the White House against the first President Bush brought out 55.2 percent, about 104.4 million
At least six states and the District of Columbia set new highs in voter turnout Tuesday, according to Gans' analysis. The states are Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
"On both sides, the presidency of George Bush was a lightning rod," Gans said, explaining the high turnout. "For those who supported him, they supported him for traditional values, strong leadership, the war on terrorism and some rejection of things that the Democrats advocate," such as abortion rights and gay civil unions.
"On the other side, it was the war on Iraq, debt, the feeling he hadn't been candid with the American people, too conservative values and division in the country."
In a sampling of states:
-In John Kerry's home state, Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin expected turnout to hit a record high of 3 million.
-A record 1.7 million Arkansans registered to vote in this year's election, and Secretary of State Charlie Daniels expected 70 percent turnout.
-The Iowa Secretary of State's office reported "tremendous" numbers of absentee ballots, surpassing 500,000, up from 277,077 in 2000.
-A record 7.5 million Illinois residents were registered to vote. Dan White, executive director of the State Board of Elections, predicted turnout stronger than the 69 percent in the 2000 presidential election.
- A record 12 million Californians were expected to vote. "It's a landslide of people coming out, which is nice," voter Theresa Cocco, 45, a business owner, said outside the Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach. "It renews my faith in society."
The modern record for voter turnout was 1960, when 65 percent of those eligible cast ballots.
On the Net:
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate: http://www.gspm.org/csae/cgans4.html