Americans Neared a Voter-Turnout Record — Here's How 2016 Compares to Past Elections
By Rebecca Harrington and Skye Gould
Historic division brought out voters in droves this presidential election. More than 46 million people had already voted before Election Day, breaking early voting records and fueling Democrats' confidence in clinching the presidency.
But by the time most of the votes had been counted, it became clear that nearly every poll's expectation to crown Hillary Clinton as the 45th president was drastically wrong, and Republican Donald Trump would be heading to the White House. And that possible record-breaking turnout had a lot more asterisks attached to it.
The data available Thursday afternoon show over 131 million ballots had been counted, according to the United States Elections Project — just below the all-time high.
While results were still trickling in, and the overall turnout could end up being higher, that preliminary total suggests that only 57% of eligible voters actually voted this year.
For some Americans, the two names at the top of the ticket were so unpalatable that they opted out of voting for president at all, instead focusing on down-ballot races. In 14 states, more people voted for the senate races than voted for the presidency.
The highest overall voter turnout was 133 million Americans in the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, according to the American Presidency Project. This year's turnout would have to surpass that mark to set the new record.
While the overall turnout in 2008 and 2016 sounds impressive, neither saw the highest percentage of voters that ever hit the polls.
That was in the race between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, when 83% eligible voters turned out. That election was similarly contentious to this year's, with Hayes squeaking out a victory of 185-184 electoral votesafter a lengthy political and legal battle.
Of course, that was before women had the right to vote, and when minorities were still routinely disenfranchised, so that high percentage mostly applies to white men.
While 2008's overall total sounds impressive, only 62% of eligible voters turned out to vote that year — closer to 2016's level, but still low compared to other industrialized countries.
The reason why 2008 and 2016 appear to have record-breaking turnout is because the US population has increased, so there are more voters overall. But when you look at voter turnout as a percentage, it's actually decreased or stagnated in the last century.
Here's how voter turnout in US presidential elections compares over time:
(BI Graphics/Skye Gould)