Dr. Michael McDonald of George Mason University calculates the turn-out rate for this election to be 62.6%. He says that this number might rise. This is the highest turn-out rate since 1964 when 62.8% of eligible voters participated in the Johnson / Goldwater contest.
I found this interesting chart on voter turn-out at The United States Election Project
The Founding Era (1789-1824) experienced the lowest turnout rates in American history. The 6.3% turnout in 1792 stands out at the absolute lowest, though the absence of voters is not terribly surprising given that George Washington ran unopposed. What explains lower turnout in other elections during this era is that state elections were often preeminent. During this period it was not uncommon for state legislatures to select directly the electors to the Electoral College. Furthermore, when the nation was still very much a rugged frontier, voting was not easy to do since it required people to travel far to vote at county courthouses.
The Party Machine Era (1828-1896) experienced the highest turnout rates in the nation’s history, routinely exceeding 80% nationally. In this period party competition was fierce within states and across the nation. The political machines created grassroots organizations to mobilize their supporters. While much of the folklore about this era focuses on the abuses of voting buying and other corruption, it is instructive to understand that modern political scientists regard these sorts of grassroots as the most effective means by which to get people to vote. The Republican’s effective “72 Hour Campaign” and Sen. Obama’s emphasis on building voter mobilization organizations have their roots in the person-to-person style of politics fashioned during this era.
The Segregation Era (1900-1948) is a play on words, as I mean segregation in the sense that the electorate was segregated into voters and non-voters by Progressive Era reforms that were designed to destroy the power of political machines. In the South, these same “reforms” were targeted to lower turnout among African-Americans. These reforms included, among others, secret ballot laws that made it difficult for the parties to monitor voting, and reward people for voting in the preferred manner. A secret ballot law became a de facto literacy test, which was also explicitly adopted by many states. They also included voter registration laws that were much more burdensome that today in that some states required voters to register as much as six months in advance of each election. It took a while for these reforms to be adopted by all states and for the power of political machines to wane, and it is in this period during the twilight of political machines that the 1908 election was held. The cumulative effect of these changes in the electoral system was to reduce turnout rates by placing additional burdens on prospective voters.
The Nationalization Era (1952-present) does not look much different than the current era on the surface. In a broad context, turnout rates have not changed much in the last century. Sure, at times they have fluctuated up or down depending on the election, but in the big context we’ve been in a ten percentage point range of turnout rates for the past century. What is significant about the current era is that the federal government has increasingly become more involved in the conduct of elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with such barriers as literacy tests and empowered federal registrars to go into African-American communities in the South. Indeed, not apparent in the national numbers is a resurgence of voting among the Southern states. Other major reforms during this era include the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (aka ‘Motor Voter’) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. One other significant reform is the lowering of voting eligibility from 21 to 18 in 1972, in most states. Since the youth have in the past voted at lower rates, about a third of the lower rates since 1968 can be attributed to this expansion of the electorate.