DURHAM, N.C. – Voter excitement, always up before a presidential election, is pushing registration through the roof so far this year – with more than 3.5 million people rushing to join in the historic balloting, according to an Associated Press survey that offers the first national snapshot.
Figures are up for blacks, women and young people. Rural and city. South and North.
Overall, the AP found that nearly one in 65 adult Americans signed up to vote in just the first three months of the year. And in the 21 states that were able to provide comparable data, new registrations have soared about 64 percent from the same three months in the 2004 campaign.
Voters are flocking to the most open election in half a century, inspired to support the first female president, the first black or the oldest ever elected.
Also, the bruising Democratic race has lasted longer than anyone expected, creating a burst of interest in states typically ignored in an election year.
Some Democratic Party leaders bemoan the long battle, with two strong candidates continuing to undercut each other. But there are clear signs that the registration boom is favoring their party, at least for now.
“This could change the face of American politics for decades to come,” said Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, predicting permanent gains for her party. Republicans, concerned at least somewhat for 2008, say these surges come and go over the longer term.
While detailed data are available from only a handful of states, registration seems to be up particularly strongly for blacks and women.
Among the new voters in North Carolina is Shy Ector, 25, of Durham. She favored Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill four years ago but never actually took the time to make sure she was registered to vote. Barack Obama’s candidacy was enough to make sure she did this year, she said.
“I was like ‘Oh, now this is a reason to vote. This is different,’ ” Ector said. “I was inspired and I was excited.”
New voters are generally less reliable. So there’s no guarantee this year’s newcomers will stick around in years to come – or even cast ballots in November if their candidate doesn’t make it.
But even if some discouraged new voters drop off, the numbers are striking.
Consider North Carolina – where the primary election hadn’t been expected to matter because it occurred so late in the process.
New voter registrations favored Democrats in North Carolina, which holds its primary today. In the first three months of the year, the number of new Democratic registrants nearly tripled – to 74,590 – from those during the same period of 2004. New Republican registrations were up, too, but they only doubled.
More than 49,558 unaffiliated voters signed up in the Tar Heel state, compared with just 16,858 in the first three months of 2004. The Democratic primary was the obvious draw, with 85 percent of unaffiliated voters who cast early ballots doing so on that ticket.
Cherie Poucher, director of elections in Wake County, home of the state capital of Raleigh, said registrations among the parties have historically kept pace with each other – until this year. In the two weeks before the April 11 registration deadline, she said, the Democrats gained about 8,000 voters in Wake County while the GOP lost several hundred.
“We have never seen something like that before,” Poucher said.