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This Year’s Voter Turnout Explained

By Olivia Sohn ‘23, Staff Writer

The 2020 Presidential Election now holds the record for the highest voter turnout since 1900, but even with this highest turnout, approximately 35% of eligible voters in the United States did not vote. In response, Americans have posed two very different questions: what made so many people vote this year? And why did so many still not cast a vote?

Experts on voter turnout in American history are drawing parallels between the 2020 election and elections in the mid-1800s. Specifically, they note the polarization between political parties about the White House’s occupant. In the 1830s and 1840s, voter turnout increased after a close race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Notably,  a much smaller percentage of the population was eligible to vote at that time. More recently, the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was remarkably close. It makes sense that after such a tight race, more Americans would desire to make their voices heard in the election. Additionally, throughout American history, voter turnout has increased after disruptive events like the Great Depression and the social movements of the 1960s. The months leading up to the 2020 election had a similar impact on America. The country battled a global pandemic, faced economic instability, and a revitalization of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It makes sense that these monumental events would instill within Americans a sense of fear, duty, and a yearning for change, resulting in increased voter turnout. 

Though voter turnout was very high this past election, millions of eligible voters still chose not to vote on election day. Studies have shown that systemic barriers make it harder for certain groups to vote. For example, eligible voters with long-term disabilities are less likely to vote, and Black and Hispanic voters are more likely to experience hurdles in the voting process such as fewer polling places in their neighborhoods, long lines, and trouble getting off work. In addition to systemic issues, some Americans simply do not believe their vote will make a difference or that the election can change anything. Finally, the American voting system is more complicated than that of other countries. Unlike countries such as Germany and Sweden, Americans are not automatically registered to vote once of age; instead, American citizens have to research how and when to register to vote on their own. This extra step is inconvenient for the average American, and it is a tremendous challenge for some minorities or those below the poverty line without internet access. 

Strong feelings about current events and a desire for change can bring Americans to the polls, but as long as systemic barriers remain in place and voting-system confusion is unresolved, many remain prevented from exercising their right to vote and having a voice in our country’s future. 

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