Joe Biden, as you probably know, got the most votes of any presidential candidate in history. And, if you know that, you perhaps also know that Donald Trump received the second most votes of any presidential candidate in history.
Obviously, that means that the more than 159.6 million votes cast in the 2020 were the most votes ever cast in a presidential election, and set the new record high by a huge margin.
Of course, the U.S. population and the voting age population are also the highest they’ve ever been, but they didn’t increase over the past four years nearly as much as the turnout numbers – which jumped from 136.7 million in 2016 to 159.7 million in 2020. In fact, the turnout, as a percentage of the voting age population, jumped from 54.8% to 62.0. That’s the highest in well over a century.
And that occurred despite the 2020 election occurring during a pandemic.
A voter participation rate of 62% wouldn’t look great on a comparison of democracies around the world. But the United States, despite liking to think of itself as the leader of democracy in the world, has long had embarrassingly low voter participation.
Our just-achieved recent high of 62% turnout still wouldn’t put us anywhere near the top of turnout numbers around the democratic world. But it’s a lot better, and less embarrassing, than the low-to-mid 50s percent turnout where our voter participation rates have been mired for the last 12 presidential elections date back 48 years to 1972. (And of course, presidential election years always beat, by a significant amount, the even lousier turnout in U.S. midterm elections, when the entire U.S. House and a third of the U.S. Senate and a great many governorships are also on the ballot.)
Bad turnout numbers are an old story in our poor, dear ol’ country, but it seldom seems to get in the way of our constant claim to be the leaders of democracy in the world.
So, why the big surge in turnout in 2020? Trump is a big factor, generating enthusiasm among his fans and even more among his non-fans. Making available various means of voting that don’t involve waiting on long lines at polling places is obviously a factor. The pandemic would have led to a much worse 2020 turnout if not for those other options.
We’ll have to wait for future elections, involving neither a pandemic, nor the enormous turnout inspired by Trump – both pro- and especially con – to find out what might be the new normal for U.S. voter turnout.
If I had to guess, I would say that the pro- and anti-Trump enthusiasm is a huge factor. Time will tell. 2024 is a long way off, and 2022 will be a midterm election, when turnout always slumps. But I’d love to believe that some combination of new ways to vote and an elevated understanding of how important it is to do so will lead to continued higher turnout.
I’d also like to see more humility in the usual invocations of the United States as the leader of democracy in the world until we consistently generate voter participation numbers that don’t undermine that claim.