Presidential Inauguration Turnout Could Set Record

December 13, 2008

Even if it looks to be a record crowd at Barack Obama's inauguration, don't expect an official head count for history.

A million or more people may show up on the National Mall and along the parade route for the inauguration of the country's first black president, federal and local authorities predict. But officials have no plans to release turnout estimates that day - or any day, for that matter.

"It's a shame," said David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service. "From a historical standpoint, it's good for America to know the size of the events."

Some local lawmakers are calling for an official crowd estimate.

"I am an advocate for open and transparent government," D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown said in a statement Friday. "If there is a way to provide an accurate count of how many people attended this historic inauguration, the information should be made available to the public."

Most organizers say that Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration could draw the largest crowd to Washington in modern times. In a hair-raising moment for some inaugural planners, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said 3 million or more people might show up, more than double the 1.2 million at Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration in 1965, the largest turnout the Park Service has on record.

The Park Service and a number of other agencies have stuck to a more conservative prediction of 1 million or more for Obama.

Crowd counts on the National Mall used to be the domain of the Park Service, which analyzed aerial photographs, crowd-density estimates and square-footage figures to come up with approximate turnout for inaugurations, protests and other big gatherings. It started the estimates in the early 1960s but got out of the business after it was accused of underestimating the number of people attending the 1995 Million Man March (as in, not a million).

"It's always been a lose-lose situation for the Park Service," Barna said. "You're always criticized for the number you come up with, because the organizers want it to be the largest number you can justify."

The Park Service says Congress directed it to stop crowd counts in 1997 to avoid criticism from groups holding events on the Mall and on other property the agency's officers patrol. Park Service officials say they won't change their policy unless Congress advises them otherwise.

So far, no other agency seems inclined to count crowds on Inauguration Day. The U.S. Secret Service and D.C. police say they're not going to jump in. And the Presidential Inaugural Committee hasn't shown any interest.

If no one steps up to do a scientific estimate, there will only be guesstimates on Inauguration Day, said Clark McPhail, a professor emeritus of sociology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied crowds since the 1960s.

"The word 'million' rolls off the tongue very easily," McPhail said. "Everybody will say this was a very, very large turnout, and you'll have a lot of silly guesses."

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