DALLAS – All those get-out-the-vote efforts got out the vote – big time.

An estimated 120 million people voted, a figure that includes 5 million to 6 million uncounted absentee and provisional ballots, said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

That total, which includes a sharp rise in young voters, represents a voter participation rate of about 60 percent. If reached, it would be the highest turnout since 1968, when 61 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, Gans said.

The key was President Bush, said Gans.

“George Bush was the lightning rod,” he said. “He was the major factor.”

Altogether, about 15 million more voters cast ballots than in 2000, when 51 percent of eligible voters – 105.6 million people – turned out. In recent years, only the 1992 race, which drew 55 percent of eligible voters in Bill Clinton’s first election, came close to this year’s turnout.

While other experts predict final turnout numbers could be lower than the 120 million mark, all agree this election brought the most Americans to the polls – ever.

“The good news is, as a total number (turnout) is up, particularly around the battleground states,” said Michael McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. But as for the final figures, “we’re really going to have to wait and see how this all shakes out,” he said.

Nearly 21 million Americans ages 18 to 29 voted in this election, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. CIRCLE, which is nonpartisan, is part of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

“Turnout was up across the board. Youth turnout increased and kept up with the overall increase,” said Carrie Donovan, CIRCLE’s young vote director. About 52 percent of eligible 18-to 29-year-olds voted, compared with 42 percent in 2000 and 35 percent in 1996.

Those young voters sided with John Kerry. The Democrat won 54 percent of votes in that age group – the only one in which he outran the president, said Barry Burden, an associate professor of government at Harvard University. Bush got just 44 percent of that group, while 1 percent voted for Ralph Nader.

The young vote’s share of the overall turnout did not change much from 2000. Exit polls showed that those ages 18 to 29 accounted for 17 percent of all voters, about the same as in 2000.

“In some ways the turnout of young people is disappointing, given what our expectations were,” Burden said. “But on the other hand, were it not for them, Kerry would’ve been blown out by a wider margin. They kept it close.”

Young voter advocates, who predicted that 2004 would be the year of the young voter, sought to counter some media reports that they did not live up to expectations.

“Young people turned out to vote in huge numbers on November 2, along with everyone else,” Hans Reimer, the Washington director of Rock the Vote, said Wednesday.

Turnout of young people was even higher in battleground states, Donovan said.

In the ten most contested states, 64 percent of eligible 18- to 29 year-olds voted – up 13 percentage points from 2000, according to the CIRCLE study.

Exit polls showed that one of five voters in those states were under 30. The battleground states included Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where young voter groups conducted a heavy registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.

Despite conventional wisdom that Democrats benefit from high turnout, Bush made the biggest gains in states where turnout increased the most, said Burden. The president gained 1.5 percentage points in the polls for every 10 percentage points that turnout increased, he said.

Black voters and Hispanic voters also turned out in larger numbers than in the 2000 contest, Burden said, particularly in swing states.

More than 7 million Latinos headed to the polls Tuesday, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. But the highly coveted Hispanic vote didn’t break for either candidate, said Maria Garcia, the association’s director of voter engagement.

“Latinos were very divided,” she said. “There were no clear winners. … It just demonstrates that Latinos are really up for grabs.”

Turnout also soared among evangelicals and Protestants. Sixteen percent of all voters labeled themselves Protestants and regular churchgoers, a group that favored Bush by a 2-to-1 margin, Burden said. An additional 15 percent of all voters said they were Protestants with sporadic church attendance, still heavily favoring the president.

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