Nearly 160 million Americans voted in the 2020 elections, by far the most in history and a level of turnout not seen in over a century, representing an extraordinary milestone of civic engagement in a year marked by a devastating pandemic, record unemployment and political unrest.
With all but three states having completed their final count, and next week’s deadline for final certification of the results approaching, the sheer volume of Americans who actually voted in November was eye-opening: 66.7% of the voting-eligible population, according to the U.S. Election Project, a nonpartisan website run by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who tracks county-level data.
It is the highest percentage since 1900, when the voting pool was much smaller, and easily surpasses two high-water marks of the modern era: the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy and the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Since the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote and roughly doubled the voting-eligible population, turnout had never surpassed 64%.
The shifts that led to this year’s surge in voting, in particular the broad expansion of voting options and the prolonged period for casting ballots, could forever alter U.S. elections and political campaigns, providing a glimpse into the electoral future.
A backlash from the right could prevent that, however. In many ways, the increase in voting is what President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are now openly campaigning against in their futile bid to overturn his clear loss to President-elect Joe Biden — whose popular vote lead grew to 7 million Friday. Republicans have portrayed the burgeoning voting ranks as nefarious and the expanded access to voting options as ripe for fraud — despite the fact that the record turnout provided them numerous victories down ballot.
Although Trump and the party have not managed to prove a single claim of fraud in the courts — where they and their allies have lost or withdrawn dozens of cases — Republicans at the state level are vowing to enact a new round of voting restrictions to prevent what they claim — without evidence — is widespread fraud.
The swell in voting this year was powered by a polarizing presidential race and the many steps that election officials took to make voting safer — and therefore easier — during the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 94% of voters said that voting in the November election was “easy.”
That ease in voting could also be read as “access.” The expansion of vote by mail, early voting, online registration and online ballot requests broke down many of the traditional barriers that sometimes kept people away from the ballot box. Others simply used long-existing laws as they sought to deliver a verdict on Trump’s four tumultuous years in office.
The expansion of voting options also created a fall “election season” rather than a sole Election Day, a change that is likely to endure and force political campaigns to restructure fall operations with a greater emphasis on getting out the vote over a period of weeks.
“We opened the doors to access,” said Adrian Fontes, the top election official in Maricopa County, the largest county in Arizona, where, for the first time, more than 80% of the eligible population voted in the general election.
It also flipped from Republican to Democratic for the first time in 72 years.
“I think the most telling number is the 165,000 in-person Election Day voters,” Fontes said about voter turnout in Maricopa County. “When you get over 2 million people casting a ballot and less than 200,000 of them are actually walking in on Election Day and casting a fresh ballot, that’s important.”
In interviews, election officials tempered their enthusiasm over this year’s turnout by acknowledging several only-in-2020 factors. Trump is a unique public figure who drew considerable personal enmity from voters opposed to him. He ran at a time of extreme economic and social upheaval because of the pandemic. And lockdown orders and mass furloughs and layoffs gave Americans more time to consume news — both on the internet and through the old-fashioned network newscasts, which had their highest viewership in more than a decade — increasing their engagement with the election.
“Voters really thought about how they were going to vote, and many had a plan and executed on that plan,” said Kim Wyman, secretary of state in Washington.
Although election experts caution against viewing the expansion of mail voting as the sole driver of turnout, it is clear that states that increased mail balloting or went to a complete vote-by-mail system had the highest participation. States that did not offer expansive vote-by-mail options were on the lower end of the scale.
Hawaii, for instance, had the lowest voter participation in 2012 and 2016. But last year, it passed a universal vote-by-mail system, and last month, it experienced the highest voting increase in the country. Early voting increased there by nearly 111% compared with 2016, and the state’s turnout of 57.5% was up by more than a third overall.
Other states that encouraged voters to use existing mail options also saw their records increase. In Minnesota, which had the highest percentage turnout in the country at 79.96%, election officials mailed out ballot applications to every registered voter and ran an $830,000 voter education advertising program to explain options already on the books.
“There was no huge legal shift in the legal terrain, or some new method of voting that was not on the books before,” said Steve Simon, secretary of state in Minnesota. “This was emphasizing and showcasing an option that had been there for a long time.”
In a sense, the pandemic brought with it the realization of a long-held dream of voting rights advocates. For decades, they have sought to increase turnout by making voting easier through provisions such as day-of-vote registration, early voting and voting by mail.
Their goal was to help the country overcome a stubborn, national problem: For the better part of the past century, fewer than 60% of eligible voters have participated in national elections, and in some years, turnout has been far lower — ranking the U.S. voter participation rate well below that of most of the developed world.
Democrats have been generally supportive of efforts to increase turnout. Polls and population data have repeatedly shown that the voters most affected by the difficulties of in-person, Election Day voting — transient workers, people who move often or low-wage single parents who can’t easily wait in long lines at polls on a Tuesday — traditionally vote more for Democrats than for Republicans.
Similarly, polling and census data show that Black Americans, Hispanics and young people — important elements of the Democratic coalition — are more likely to be nonvoters than are older white people, a majority of whom regularly vote for Republican presidential candidates.
The introduction of same-day registration and early voting, for instance, contributed to a surge in participation by Black voters in North Carolina in 2008, helping make Obama the first Democrat to win there since 1976. Republicans in statehouses there and elsewhere have spent the years since trying to place new restrictions on voting, at times running afoul of the courts.
In Harris County, home to Houston and 4.7 million residents, election officials opened up drive-through voting sites across the county as a safe way to vote during a pandemic. More than 130,000 voters used the option. County officials also created multiple 24-hour voting sites for shift workers, and roughly 10,000 voters used them to cast their ballots.
“A good chunk of them told us that they would not have voted any other way, that this made voting possible for them,” said Chris Hollins, clerk for Harris County.
Voting rights advocates have long viewed vote by mail as an important remedy for low turnout, but only with changes that would make it easier without compromising security. In many states, absentee voting has come with certain strings such as requirements for excuses, witness signatures or even notarization.
Colorado, Utah, Washington state, Oregon and Hawaii have moved to nearly universal, mail-in voting systems and have had their turnout rates rise without any significant instances of fraud or irregularities.
“When we see vote by mail increase in any state, we simultaneously see a turnout increase,’’ said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and an architect of the vote-by-mail system in Colorado. “It’s about making the process more accessible.”
McDonald, the professor, said that the wider embrace of voting by mail could have a significant effect on down-ballot elections, which traditionally have lower turnout; high-propensity voters, he said, would be more likely to vote in local, municipal or off-year elections if a ballot arrived at their homes.
Almost as soon as the coronavirus spread throughout the United States, Democrats pushed for the easier vote-by-mail provisions, arguing, for instance, that the acquisition of witness signatures could be difficult during a pandemic, particularly for at-risk older voters who live alone.
Democrats in Congress sought to make a similar push nationally but ran into stiff opposition from Trump, who gave rare public voice to the idea that Republicans don’t want to make voting easier because that would make it harder for them to win.
“They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said in March.
In fact, Trump’s logic — that increased mail-in voting would automatically help Democrats — proved flawed. Several academic studies have found that mail voting does not necessarily give one party an advantage over another. In Georgia, for instance, the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said that Trump would have won his state had he not dissuaded his own voters from using mail ballots.
Georgia, which voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in nearly 30 years, had 67% turnout.
Of course, even as barriers to voting were toppled and a broad voter education effort spilled across newspapers, cable news and social media, some political operatives saw the expansion of voting as rooted in the singular force that dominated U.S. politics for the past four years.
“Two words,” Robby Mook, who was campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said in an email. “DONALD TRUMP.”