WASHINGTON (AP) _ Pat yourself on the back, America. The 1992 elections drew an estimated 104 million people - an all-time record - to the polls to exercise their right to vote.

That represented the highest percentage of people eligible to vote - about 55 percent - to cast ballots in two decades.

''Democracy is the big winner,'' said Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters. ''American voters demonstrated that when given the opportunity, they will register to vote. When given real issues, they will listen. Once involved, they will vote.''

Several states set records either in total numbers voting or percentage of eligible voters participating. Even the District of Columbia - long the symbol of voter apathy with traditionally low turnout - set a record.

But to do it, voters had to brave snow in Minnesota and Nebraska, long lines everywhere and inconveniences like a broken voting machine in Indiana and ballot shortages in California and Florida.

''It was a resounding victory for ... citizenship,'' District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said as voters in her city turned out in droves to oppose a death penalty referendum imposed by Congress.

But experts cautioned that the break in an otherwise three-decade downward spiral of voter participation may be short-lived and may not have much to do with President-elect Clinton's landslide win either.

Democratic turnout posted less than a 1 percent gain and Republican turnout was down more than 6 percent, making the 19 percent independent vote for Ross Perot the single biggest gain, said Curtis Gans, a voter turnout expert who founded the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

''The bulk of the gain is recession driven and change driven but the overwhelming beneficiary was Perot, not the Democrats even though they won,'' Gans said.

About 55 percent of eligible Americans voted this time around, up 5 percentage points from the all-time low 50.2 percent mark set in 1988, Gans said. This year's was the highest percentage turnout since 55.2 percent cast ballots in 1972, he said.

In terms of raw numbers, an estimated 104 million Americans voted Tuesday, eclipsing the previous high of 92.6 million set in 1984, he said.

With 99 percent of the vote tallied Wednesday in the presidential race, more than 101 million votes were counted. Gans' estimate takes into account absentee ballots and voters who skipped the presidential ballot but still voted in other races.

But Gans cautioned that this was a ''pocketbook election'' in which economic concerns spawned a magnitude of turnout that is likely to be short- lived unless reforms address more serious problems of voter apathy.

''The biggest reason is the recession and a little bit of 'Read my lips' and a little bit (Ross) Perot. ... But there's nothing in the election itself to say it is anything but temporary,'' he said.

Indeed, the economy clearly was on the minds of many as long lines wrapped around polling sites from dawn to dusk across the nation, forcing some voters to wait as long as three hours to cast their ballots.

''Basically, our problems are related to the economy so we need someone experienced and successful in this area to pull us out of the crunch,'' said David Osentoski, 37, of Land O' Lakes, Fla.

And records were set everywhere. Gans projected Louisiana, Georgia and Virginia had record participation in terms of percentage. And Nebraska declared its own record in total voters casting ballots despite near-blizzard conditions in some areas of the state.

But bigger turnout spelled longer lines and inconveniences in many places.

The polling station in small Bryceville, Fla., ran out of ballots one hour before closing time, forcing election workers to make copies of sample ballots.

Thirty-nine voters ''voted with paper like they did in the olden days,'' elections supervisor Shirley N. King said, blaming the short supply on a late rush of voters.

There was a similar ballot shortage in some Orange County, Calif., precincts that kept some voters waiting in lines up to two hours for more supplies, said Donald Tanney, the county registrar of voters.

And in Indiana, voters sheered off the lever for Gov. Evan Bayh on one voting machine. ''Our theory on that was that it was from overuse,'' said Ann Delaney, executive director of the state Democratic Party. Bayh won easily.

In some places, polls were forced to stay open hours past their scheduled closing time to accommodate lengthy lines.

In Champaign, Ill., where a line of 150 still stood at the 7 p.m. CST poll closing time, the final ballot was cast at 10:15 p.m. The same was true in New Haven, Conn., where turnout was estimated at 80 percent.

Gans said returns showed large voter turnout increases in Oklahoma (10 percentage point), Wyoming (9.6), Kansas (8), Tennessee (7) and Kentucky (5).

Among the bigger states, turnout in New York rose less than 1 percentage point while it increased 3.8 percent in Illinois and 3 percent in Texas. Turnout was thought to have dropped 1 percentage point in California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska.