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Turnout wasn't higher in ND

State Capitol Bureau BISMARCK - As it turns out, North Dakotans were merely falling in love with more convenient voting, not coming out in unusually large numbers. "People thought it was going to be a record-breaking turnout," said Secretary of S...

State Capitol Bureau

BISMARCK - As it turns out, North Dakotans were merely falling in love with more convenient voting, not coming out in unusually large numbers.

"People thought it was going to be a record-breaking turnout," said Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

But on Wednesday, the proof was there: 320,431 voters participated in Tuesday's election, a turnout of 64.5 percent, according to Jaeger's Web site.

Even though that's about 4,400 more voters than in 2004, that turnout was still below the 64.9 percent participation four years ago because the state's voting-age population increased slightly.

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When all the absentee ballots are accounted for, Jaeger said, the final percentage for 2008 may rise to 64.52, nowhere near the 1984 record of 69 percent.

Jaeger said it was clear early this election season that North Dakotans were embracing early voting, either through early voting precincts in six counties that allowed thousands of walk-in voters to fill out their ballots at central sites or through expanded use of absentee ballots.

"More people took advantage of those options," Jaeger said.

Of the state's 53 counties, 21 conducted mail-in voting for the general election, which is essentially a generalized absentee balloting. But even in the other 32 counties, the number of absentee ballots requested exploded, Jaeger said. And before Election Day, about 113,000 voters went to the early voting precincts.

"I didn't think that would translate back into a higher turnout," he said.

But in Mercer County, turnout did hold a surprise of sorts. Though the county was one that allowed voting by mail, so many people - 600 to 700 - voted on Election Day at the single precinct that was open that poll workers there were unable to start counting mailed-in ballots until after the polls closed.

That held up their tabulations. They also had trouble reconciling some of the figures they were getting and worked all night, with several calls to Jaeger's staff into the wee hours.

"They kept at it until they made sure they got it right," Jaeger said.

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One of those who were fooled by the rush to early voting was Democratic-NPL Party Executive Director Jamie Selzler.

"The perception by everyone was turnout would continue to be high (on Election Day)," he said.

The turnout also did not meet some Democrats' and pollsters' predictions that Barack Obama might win, or nearly win, North Dakota.

"Polls showed it was going to be closer than it was," Selzler said.

Selzler said that while it's true Obama did not come close to McCain, Democrats can still be proud of having held McCain to 53 percent of the vote in a heavily red state. Obama ended with 44.7 percent.

In 2004, President Bush kept Democrat John Kerry to 35.5 percent, taking nearly 63 percent of the vote.

"If a year ago, two years ago, four years ago, somebody would have said Republican would only get 53 percent (in 2008), people would have been shocked," Selzler said.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net

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