November 4, 2008.   As Election Day dawned, around 31% of the electorate had already voted early or absentee.  Now,  before heading off to work, during lunch break, or after another day at the office millions more Americans across the country went to the pollsAll told 61.7% of those eligible to vote turned out and 131.3 million ballots were cast for president. 

"Election Day"
"Election Day" has increasingly become a relative term.  By November 4, 2008 a bit less than a third of the electorate had already voted early or absentee.  More than half of states conduct some form of early voting. 
(See EVIC at Reed College).  Both campaigns encouraged early voting as a way of banking votes, so that on Election Day itself they had fewer people to keep track of. 

Avoiding Another Florida

Despite passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) and significant investments in upgrading voting equipment around the country, concerns about the integrity of the electoral process remained.  In 2004 Ohio became a focal point for concerns about voter irregularity.  Additionally in the last month of the campaign, both major parties made numerous allegations of fraud and intimidation.  President Bush's plurality was large enough that the "margin of litigation" was not crossed, but had the election been closer there could have easily been another post-election fiasco.  

On Election Day, November 4, 2008, and in the days leading up to it, partisan and independent observers, federal observers, and international observers of varying stripes mobilized to ensure that voters' rights are protected and their intentions heard (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  The surge of voter registrations heading into Election Day 2008 raised concerns that some election officials may be overwhelmed.  The League of Women Voters, for example, highlighted the need for poll workers (6).  The Advancement Project warned that "several battleground states are not prepared to meet the challenge of administering the general election." (7)  Democrats have focused on protecting the right to vote (8, 9 [PDF]) while Republicans have emphasized the need to fight fraud.  ACORN, which claimed to have registered 1.3 million low-income, minority and young voters in 21 states in 2007-08, was a particular target of Republican concerns in the weeks leading up to Election Day (10, 11, 12).  Despite the concerns Election Day went off without any major glitches (13).

Election Night: Unofficial Results, Exit Polls...Showtime

Election night coverage and the multi-page spreads in the newspaper the next morning are the culmination of months of preparation and planning.

One key component of election coverage is exit polls, which are based on surveys of voters in randomly selected precincts as they leave polling places.  Exit polls provide a window on the concerns of voters and useful information on variations in voting behavior by gender, race, age, education, income and other factors.  From 1988 to 2002 exit polls were overseen by Voter News Service (initially called Voter Research and Surveys), an entity formed by the networks and the Associated Press.  After poor performance in the 2000 and 2002 general elections, the partners disbanded VNS, and a new cooperative, the National Election Pool, comprised of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and the Associated Press, formed.  Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International (2) conducted all exit polling for the National Election Pool in the 2004 and 2008 general elections.  Edison reported:

"The National Exit Poll for 2008 was one of the most logistically complex and challenging studies ever undertaken, with over 3,000 people conducting exit polls, reporting votes and analyzing the results of over 100,000 election day interviews. In addition, Edison conducted over 15,000 telephone interviews across the United State to measure early and mail-in voting which accounted for approximately one-third of all votes cast in the 2008 presidential election."

A second important element of election night coverage is the collection, tabulation and distribution unofficial election night vote results for presidential, Senate, House and gubernatorial races.  The Associated Press fulfilled this role.  As described in a press release:

"The more than 500 AP reporters, editors, videographers, technical support personnel and other staffers involved in covering the presidential, congressional and state elections and counting the votes will be joined and assisted on Nov. 4 by an army of 4,600 local reporters, known as stringers, who will fan out across the country to collect vote results from county clerks and phone them into four regional election tabulation centers -- two in Spokane, Wash., a third at AP headquarters in Manhattan and a fourth in Brooklyn."

For news organizations, when everything works, election night is as good as it gets, a chance to show what they can do.  Anchors man elaborate sets, correspondents around the country file reports, and, as the evening progresses, states are called one way or another and the map begins to fill in with red and blue.  [News Organizations Cover Election Day 2008]

Defeat...And Victory
On the evening of Nov. 4, 2008 things fell into place fairly quickly.  The networks called the race after 8 p.m. West Coast poll closings (11 p.m. EST), Sen. McCain, in Phoenix, AZ, called Sen. Obama and then delivered his concession speech, and Obama delivered his victory speech within the hour.  [DC photos 1, 2]

The Morning After...What Does It Mean?
The days after the election are peak season for pundits as they assess, analyze, discuss and debate the meaning of the results.  Various interest groups offer their own post-election assessments, often using the opportunity to point to the impact their constituency had on the outcome and to stress their key issues.  [Reactions 2008, 2004]


131.3 million votes were cast in the race for president.  Obama garnered 69.5 million votes (52.9%) to 59.9 million (45.7%) for McCain and 1.9 million votes (1.4%) for other candidates.  Obama carried 28 states, the 2nd CD in Nebraska, and the District of Columbia, winning 365 electoral votes to 173 for McCain.    [Results in Detail]

Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
Year Voting Eligible Population
Highest Office
Total Turnout
Highest Office
Turnout Rate
Total Ballots Counted
Turnout Rate

212,720,027 131,304,731 132,588,514 61.7
2004 203,483,455 122,294,978 123,535,883
60.1 60.7
2000 194,331,436 105,375,486 107,390,107
54.2 55.3
1996 186,347,044 96,262,935 -
51.7 -
1992 179,675,523 104,405,155 -
58.1 -
1988 173,579,281 91,594,691 -
52.8 -
1984 167,701,904 92,652,680 -
55.2 -
1980 155,635,102 86,515,221 -
54.2 -
Source: United States Elections Project at George Mason University.  Use of voting eligible population is a refinement on the old measures which used voting
age population.  Advanced by Dr. Michael McDonald at George Mason, the concept removes non-citizens and ineligible felons from the equation.  See also
 Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

Election Day: Take 2...The Electoral College

As you will recall from high school, the president is not selected by direct popular vote, but by intermediaries known as electors.  The electoral system is outlined in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804 (this significantly modified the original provisions contained in Article II).  Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of congressmen and Senators.  The District of Columbia has three electors, bringing the total to 538.  Most states use a winner-take-all rule; all the state's electors go to the winner of the popular vote in the state.  (Over the years there have been many efforts to abolish the Electoral College none of which has made much headway; in 2006 a group called National Popular Vote launched an effort to bring about change through the state legislatures).

Electors are generally party activists.  Some months before the election each party puts together a slate of electors, chosen by congressional district with the exception of the two at-large Senate slots.  If the party's presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the state on Election Day, its electors meet in the state capitol on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December 2008 (Dec. 15, 2008).  If not they stay home.

Accordingly in mid-December ceremonies at the state capitols and in the District of Columbia, electors met and signed the certificates of vote--actually they signed several copies of the document so there were back-ups.  There were separate votes for president and for vice president.  Each state sends one copy of the certificate of vote to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.  [Photos: Maryland electors meet in Annapolis]

On January 8, 2009 in a special joint session of Congress these envelopes were opened and tallied.  Normally this is a pro forma exercise, but the past two elections have been a bit different.  In 2001 members of the Congressional Black Caucus tried to get Congress to reject Florida's electors, but they could not find a Senator to support their effort.  In 2005 certification of the state results proceeded alphabetically until the Ohio votes were announced.  At that point Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH), supported by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), announced a challenge.  Debate followed, but the election of President Bush and Vice President Cheney was finally and officially certified.  The joint session of January 8 certified the election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden without incident.  [Photos: Joint Session]

Resources and Useful Links
Federal Election Commission: Federal Elections 2008
Election Assistance Commission: 2008 Election Administration & Voting Survey

Election Integrity
U.S. Election Assistance Commission

Election Day
Why Tuesday?
Seeks to move federal Election Day from the first Tuesday in November to the first Saturday and Sunday of the month.

Electoral College
Electoral College (National Archives site)

National Popular Vote
An innovative approach to address the shortcomings of the Electoral College system, National Popular Vote proposes "to introduce and pass bills in all 50 state legislatures that would award the states' electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote."   The "Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote" would take effect when enough states have passed it so that the popular vote winner would get sufficient electoral votes to win.  (Example: SB2724 introduced in the Illinois General Assembly on Jan. 20, 2006).  The state-by-state effort launched in early 2006.  National Popular Vote president Barry Fadem states that the reform may not be implemented for the 2008 election but that he is "very confident that this will be in place by 2012."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) Proposes Abolishing the Electoral College (Dec. 22, 2004)
Sen. Feinstein introduced S.J.Res. 11 on March 16, 2005.

Citizens for True Democracy (seeks abolition of Electoral College)

FairVote.  "Presidential Election Inequality: The Electoral College in the 21st Century." (Feb. 2006)
Presidential Elections Reform Program

National Election Studies 
Previous editions of this page: 2000, 2004
1992 and 1996 Maps and Results

WASHINGTON, DC - 8:30 A.M. NOV. 4 2008 NEXT

Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action