Americans voted in record numbers in last year’s presidential election, casting nearly 158.4 million ballots. That works out to more than six-in-ten people of voting age and nearly two-thirds of estimated eligible voters, according to a preliminary Pew Research Center analysis.
Nationwide, presidential election turnout was about 7 percentage points higher than in 2016, regardless of which of three different turnout metrics we looked at: the estimated voting-age population as of July 1, that estimate adjusted to Nov. 1, and the estimated voting-eligible population, which subtracts noncitizens and ineligible felons and adds overseas eligible citizens. Based on these measures, turnout was the highest since at least 1980, the earliest year in our analysis, and possibly much longer.
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The rise in turnout was fueled in part by the bitter fight between incumbent President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden: A preelection survey found a record share of registered voters (83%) saying it “really matter[ed]” who won. But another big factor was the dramatic steps many states took to expand mail balloting and early voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turnout rates increased in every state compared with 2016, but of the 10 states where it rose the most, seven conducted November’s vote entirely or mostly by mail, our analysis shows. Six of those states had recently adopted all-mail voting, either permanently (Utah and Hawaii) or for the 2020 elections only (California, New Jersey, Vermont and most of Montana).
In Hawaii, turnout rose from 42.3% of the estimated voting-eligible population in 2016 to 57% last year, the biggest turnout increase in the country by this measurement. In Utah, turnout increased by about 11 percentage points, from 56.8% of estimated eligible voters in 2016 to nearly 68% in 2020.
The smallest turnout increases, as shares of estimated eligible voters, were in North Dakota (3.3 percentage points), Arkansas (3 points) and Oklahoma (2.5 points). Interestingly, the District of Columbia’s adoption of all-mail voting for the 2020 election didn’t seem to affect turnout much: 63.7% of estimated eligible D.C. voters voted for president, 3.3 percentage points above the 2016 turnout level.
Minnesota had the highest turnout of any state last year, with 79.4% of estimated eligible voters casting ballots for president. Colorado, Maine and Wisconsin all followed close behind, at about 75.5%; Washington state, at 75.2%, rounded out the top five. The lowest-turnout states were Tennessee (59.6% of estimated eligible voters), Hawaii and West Virginia (57% each), Arkansas (55.9%) and Oklahoma (54.8%).
The Census Bureau will release its own estimates of turnout later this year, using a somewhat different methodology (people who say they voted as a share of estimated voting-age population). But based on the pattern of previous years, it’s likely the Census will show the highest turnout since the 1960s.
Despite the big bump in turnout last year, the U.S. still lags behind most of its developed-nation peers when it comes to electoral participation. Out of 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for which estimates of voting-age population in the most recent national election were available, U.S. turnout ranked an underwhelming 24th.