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• The number of votes has mostly set new records every four years, in line with population growth.
• As a percentage of the voting eligible population, the turnout rate in 2020 was higher than in any election since 1900.
• While the turnout percentage was consistently higher between 1840 and 1900, those elections aren’t really comparable because the electorate was much narrower, consisting predominantly of white men.
During a high-profile address in Philadelphia on voting rights, President Joe Biden argued that Republican efforts to roll back voting access in some states was unjustified.
After all, Biden said, the rules in effect in 2020 produced record voter turnout.
"In 2020, more people voted in America than ever in the history of America, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic," Biden said on July 13.
The number of votes cast in 2020 did set a record for a presidential election, and it did so in the middle of a pandemic, as Biden said. More than 158 million people voted as mail ballots became more widely available in many states.
However, Biden’s claim leaves out an important caveat.
"He is leaving out the context that the population grew," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who tracks voter turnout statistics at his website, the U.S. Elections Project.
In fact, the increase in population has made new quadrennial records for votes cast the rule rather than the exception during the past 60 years.
During the 15 presidential elections since 1960, the raw number of votes has fallen from election to election on only three occasions: from 1984 to 1988; from 1992 to 1996; and from 2008 to 2012.
What about as a percentage of the potential electorate, the metric that scholars say is the best indicator of turnout?
In 2020, turnout was 66.8% of the voting-eligible population. That was higher than for any election since 1900, when it was 73.7%. That was before women, minorities and 18-year-olds were guaranteed the right to vote across the country, vastly expanding the eligible population.
In each of the 16 presidential elections between 1840 and 1900 — a period during which many states were added to the union — the turnout percentage exceeded what was seen in 2020. It peaked at 82.6% in 1876.
"The electorate was just much smaller then," said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
Biden said, "In 2020, more people voted in America than ever in the history of America, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic."
Using the metric of raw votes, Biden is correct. More than 158 million Americans voted, more than ever before.
But his comparison doesn’t account for population growth.
As a percentage of the voting eligible population, the rate in 2020 was higher than in any election since 1900, during the period when the eligible electorate was much narrower, consisting predominantly of white men.
The statement is accurate but needs additional context, so we rate it Mostly True.
Joe Biden, remarks in Philadelphia, July 13, 2021
U.S. Elections Project, voter turnout main page, accessed July 13, 2021
American Presidency Project, voter turnout in presidential elections, accessed July 13, 2021
Email interview with Alan Abramowitz, Emory University political scientist, July 13, 2021
Email interview with Edward B. Foley, Ohio State University law professor, July 13, 2021
Email interview with Michael McDonald, University of Florida political scientist, July 13, 2021
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