2020 Election Produces Highest Voter Turnout in Over a Century

Illinois middle of the pack for voter turnout, but it’s the state’s highest in decades

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The 2020 Presidential Election had the highest voter turnout, percentage-wise, of any presidential election in over 100 years. Illinois ranked 26th out of 51 for voter turnout — including Washington D.C. — with an estimated voter turnout of 67.6%.

This occurred despite a global pandemic that has heavily impacted the United States with 13.7 million confirmed cases and 270,000 deaths as of early December.

“The pandemic itself exposed a lot of things going on wrong with this country,” said Malakye Hall, a resident of Hyde Park and student at UIC. “I think the pandemic, ironically, has made people more involved. Just because this was such a quote unquote important election for people.”

President-elect Joe Biden received almost 80 million votes — the most in history — and won 51.1% of the popular vote. President Donald Trump received almost 74 million votes — the second-most in history — and had 47.2% of the popular vote.

Over the course of the past few elections, voter turnout has steadily climbed. In 2016, only 59.2% of the US voting eligible population voted. In 2012, there was a mere 58% turnout, whereas, in 2008, 61.6% of the voting population voted (the highest turnout in 1968).

There are multiple reasons behind why voter turnout was so high this year compared to years prior, experts say.

Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in California, highlighted what is called out-party hostility.

“[This occurs when] you’re not necessarily motivated to vote for your party, [instead] you’re motivated to vote so the other party loses. So maybe you’re voting for Biden because you hate Republicans, or maybe you’re voting for Trump because you hate Democrats,” Michelson said. “When you have that kind of in-group out-group mentality, you’re very motivated to do what it takes to participate.”

Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, provided an uncertain take as to why he believes voter turnout was so high.

“The short answer is that I don’t know for sure,” Neiheisal said. “Typically, increases in turnout are a function of both competitiveness (courtesy of elements of the campaigns and the excitement that normally surrounds them) and legal-institutional factors, such as the liberalization of laws surrounding how members of the electorate vote (e.g., expanded provisions for absentee voting).”

Neiheisel added that the 2020 election was both highly competitive and numerous states have been seen making it easier to vote. However, he mentioned that it is unclear which impacted turnout more.

Breaking Down Illinois Results

According to the Illinois Board of Elections, with 99% of the precincts reporting, Biden won the state of Illinois.

Only 14 out of 102 counties voted for Biden, which still resulted in Biden receiving 57.5% of the total vote, compared to the 40.6% Trump received.

A large part of this is due to Biden winning the more populated counties in the state. In terms of the top 10 most populated counties, he is projected to win eight of them. As of Nov. 25, this makes up about 2.7 million of his total 3.4 million votes.

Cook County, home to the city of Chicago, has a population of about 5.2 million people. Biden received 74.3% of the total vote. This equates to about 1.72 million votes while President Trump received 557,331 votes.

With 99% of the precincts reporting, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) won reelection to a fifth term. As of Nov. 25, he received 3.26 million votes. Former Lake County Sheriff and Republican challenger Mark Curran received 2.3 million votes.

Interactive Tableau Dashboard: Illinois County Results

Accuracy of Exit Polls

Before all of the votes in the 2020 presidential election are completely counted and certified, pundits from all over the nation are offering demographic analysis based on exit polls.

According to Vox, early exit polls are serviceable in offering an early picture but are proven inaccurate over time when applied to the total electorate. Therefore, exit polls only become more reliable as the results continue to come in and update.

Additionally, Michael Dimock, the president of the Pew Research Center, commented on the reliability of polls.

“Historically, polls tend to be highly accurate when measuring public attitudes, but less accurate when measuring public behaviors,” Dimock said.

So, while the exit polls may accurately measure the public attitudes of these demographics, they may not accurately measure how these demographics behaved regarding their votes.

Based on the most recent random sample of 15,590 respondents conducted nationally by CNN, Biden dominated the historically marginalized vote. He received 87% of the Black vote, 65% of the Latino vote and 61% of the Asian vote.

However, Trump maintained an edge when it came to the white vote with 58%.

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“Did historically marginalized communities change the outcome of this election? Oh, yeah, absolutely. Right. Black women changed Georgia, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” Michelson said.

Hall commented on the increased political activity in his community for this election.

“There has been a lot more involvement in politics. Just mainly like educating people and letting people know these are the only two candidates pretty much who are more than likely going to be president,” Hall said.

Biden personally thanked Black voters on Nov. 7 when he gave his first speech to the country after his projected victory over Trump.

“The African American community stood up again for me,” Biden said. “They always have my back, and I’ll have yours. I said from the outset I wanted a campaign that represented America, and I think we did that. Now that’s what I want the administration to look like.”

In Illinois, people of color make up roughly 33% of possible voters in the general populace. Black voters make up roughly 15% of possible voters, whereas Latinx voters make up around 12%, Asians make up 4%, and multiracial citizens make up the remaining 2%

Voters in historically marginalized communities came out in droves to vote this election, even in states where voter suppression stifles voting attempts.

For example, Texas only had one drop-off ballot box per county for each county, meaning voters had to drive great distances to vote or wait in line to drop off their votes anyway.

“It’s been like, very indirect, and how they do it,” said Hall, regarding voter suppression in Chicago. “It shouldn’t be, you know, these big lines in these lower end communities, who rarely vote anyway, but find it pertinent to vote in this election. So it just kind of seemed off-putting that there wasn’t that much support in lower end communities or communities that are predominantly Latino or black people.”

Age Demographics

Based on that same CNN national exit poll of 15,990 respondents, young voters between the ages of 18–29, overwhelmingly voted for Biden over Trump. Exit polls showed that 62% of young voters chose Biden, whereas only 35% voted for Trump.

The youth vote only makes up 21% of the potential electorate in Illinois, and people aged 30–44 make up 24% of the vote in Illinois, according to APM Research Lab.

Trump has a slight lead with older voters. He received support from 50% of voters who are between the ages of 45–64, while receiving 52 percent of the voters who are 65 years or older. In Illinois, these combined age groups make up 55% of the possible electorate.

Historically, voters in the latter two voting groups (45–65+) show up more frequently to vote than their younger counterparts.

Voter Behavior

“More people vote when they think it matters like that there’s going to be either that their vote, and the votes of the people in their community might make a difference in the outcome, or they really care about who wins, even if they don’t have an understanding about how competitive the election is going to be,” Michelson said. “And both of those factors were also present in the 2020 election.”

Some voters were also spurred to vote because of their awareness of their state being a political battleground, i.e. a swing state and they felt their vote might make a difference.

“I know some people were voting because they were in a state that was a battleground or an area that was a close congressional race and they heard that their vote might make a difference,” Michelson said.

Interactive Graphic: Voter Turnout Rate by State

Student Journalist at UIC with a Communications major and professional writing minor. Class of 2021.