WASHINGTON – More people voted in this year’s election than ever before, some motivated by fear, some by peer influence, some by the wide options available for voting, some by social media and still others by love or hate for President Donald Trump.
As of Thursday, an estimated 159 million people, accounting for 66.4% of the eligible voting population, cast ballots in this election, according to the University of Florida’s United States Elections Project. That exceeds the turnout percentages for the past 120 years, going back to the 1900, when 73.2% of the voting eligible population cast ballots, ultimately re-electing President William McKinley over Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan.
“High turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy,” Michael McDonald, who runs the Elections Project, wrote in USA Today on Wednesday.
He also pointed to a pre-election Gallup Poll in which 77% of registered voters said the 2020 election mattered more to them than previous elections – the highest level since the polling firm started asking that question in 1996. Still, over one-third of voting eligible people did not cast a ballot in this election.
Experts say fear of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and about the economy, strong feelings about Trump, the current social climate and peer influences, among other factors, spawned this historic turnout. And many states still are tabulating ballots.
Following an established pattern since at least 2000, turnout rates were especially high in key swing states. Over 75% of eligible voters cast ballots in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Iowa, while over 70% of eligible voters did so in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida. Georgia received ballots from just under 70% of eligible voters.
“There’s a couple of things going on there,” said Michael Hanmer, research director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civil Engagement.
“The feeling that something more is at stake could be part of the internal motivator” for individual voters, Hanmer said, in states where, because of the Electoral College system, a vote for Trump wouldn’t have much impact in a state that voted Democratic, and a vote for Biden wouldn’t count for much in a state that voted Republican.
Voters in the battleground states don’t have that concern. Campaigns spend more energy and money in states that could go either way.
“It’s harder in those states to ignore what’s going on. It’s going to be on TV, it’s going to be on radio, it’s more likely to be on their social media, they’re more likely to get a door knock,” Hanmer said.
Non-swing states with especially high turnout rates, estimated by the Elections Project, were Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington and Oregon – all saw three-quarters or more of their eligible voters cast ballots. Maryland ranked fifteenth in voter turnout, with just over 72% of eligible voters, according to the Elections Project estimates.
The availability of mail-in voting and early voting due to the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to high turnout in some states. In Maryland, about half of the state’s voters mailed in their ballots.
Historically, states that regularly conduct elections by mail, such as Oregon, have greater voter turnout than those states that traditionally do not use the mails for balloting.
In Pennsylvania, where ballots still were being counted, Secretary of State Kathy Bookvar told reporters Thursday that she expected a very high turnout in the battleground state.
“Pennsylvanians have had more choices this year than in the history of the commonwealth,” she said.
Hanmer said that voting law changes to accommodate the pandemic likely generated some turnout, but added that since even many states that did not make these changes, like Texas, saw increased turnout, there were other factors at play as well.
“I really think that the turnout story for this election is more about general interest and mobilization,” Hanmer said.
The pandemic may have been responsible for some of this mobilization: “We’ve had our lives upended and we’re in this environment where our physical social circles have largely shrunk, and we’re really hard pressed to avoid coverage of what’s going on in the news,” Hanmer said.
David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, said usually “what increases voter turnout is the quality of the candidates,” but this year is historic in that high voter turnout seemed to be primarily motivated by fear.
“it’s just ironic to me that Joe Biden… has the ability to get the most votes, ever, ever, and he’s not the person that people are excited about,” Paleologos said.
Memories of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 may also have spurred additional turnout for Biden.
“People didn’t get out to vote because they assumed she was going to win,” Paleologos said, adding that there wasn’t “that element of surprise” this time around.
Hanmer also suspects social media and peer influence contributed to the high turnout.
“A lot of people were engaged this year in contacting other people, and I mean just regular people contacting their friends, not necessarily always part of some wider formal campaign activity,” Hanmer said. “That’s just been increasingly common as a tactic.”
Alexandra Palm, a 24-year-old nanny and pizza deliverer in Spokane, Washington, said she did not want to vote this year, but was shamed into casting a ballot for Biden.
“On social media is where I felt shamed a lot,” Palm said. She said that it wasn’t usually personally directed toward her, but “if I ever brought up that I was not voting, there was never a time when someone would just ever respect that decision, ever.”
Instead, she said people told her she couldn’t complain about election results if she didn’t vote, and that if she didn’t vote for Biden it counted as a vote for Trump. Her father and people on social media told her “you have to vote, you have to vote, you have to vote,” she said.
Ralph Watkins, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters, said “just the tone overall seemed to be far stronger than in many recent elections.”
“Democrats were very passionate about wanting to turn (Trump) out of office, and many Republicans were equally passionate about wanting to keep (Trump) in office,” Watkins said.
Watkins said the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn generated turnout along party lines: those who worried more about the economy tended to vote Republican, while those who worried more about the economy tended to vote Democrat.
Additionally, “concerns about racism are really critical, and turnout in African American areas was very high and very democratic,” Watkins said.
Marqus Shaw, 35, of Oklahoma City, voted for Biden – his first time voting. He said it was mainly to vote against Donald Trump.
“(Biden)’s better than Trump to me,” Shaw said. “Trump just says things that you shouldn’t say, he shows no compassion, and he’s a racist.”
In the past, Shaw said, he has felt like his vote wouldn’t matter, but this year he said he “just can’t take Trump anymore.”
Paleologos said turnout driven by fear “doesn’t bode well for the system at large” and may indicate a failure of the party system.
“If we’re going to have two parties, the key is for the party system to enable and support candidates who have broad appeal,” he said. “Right now we don’t have that. Right now the party system thrives on negativity.”
Capital News Service Washington reporter Luciana Perez Uribe contributed to this story.