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What we know about the high, broad turnout in the 2020 election

Voters wait in line to cast their ballot

Voters wait in line to cast their ballot during early voting in Georgia on Oct. 12, 2020. Credit: AP/Michael Holahan

Turnout in the 2020 election surged to the highest level of any election in 120 years. Recently released census data shows just how broad the surge in turnout was across demographics: The new data confirms an uptick in voting rates among Americans young and old, male and female and of different racial backgrounds and education levels.

Unlike exit polls that are limited to voters, the census survey interviews both voters and nonvoters, providing a clear look at what percentage of different groups turned out to vote, and how that compared with previous elections.

Overall, vote tallies show 66.8% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2020, up from 60.1% in 2016 and the highest turnout rate since 1900. The turnout boost was especially large among groups who have historically voted at lower rates. That suggests the 2020 election not only inspired high turnout overall, but also drew broader participation than previous elections.

Below are some highlights from The Washington Post's analysis of census survey data..

1. A big breakthrough in youth turnout

For the first time, most Americans under age 30 voted.

After decades of efforts to get young Americans to vote, usually followed by lackluster turnout, they broke new ground in 2020, with 53% of 18-to-29-year-olds casting ballots, the first time turnout reached a majority in census surveys dating to 1988. Youth turnout rose nine percentage points from 2016 (when it was 44%) and eclipsed the previous high of 49% in 2008, when enthusiasm for Barack Obama fueled a surge in young voter turnout. That's a continuation from 2018, when surging youth turnout helped fuel century-high turnout in a midterm election.

Younger voters still have a long way to go to catch their elders, who also turned out at the highest rate in any recent election. Compared with 2016, turnout grew by between five and seven points among Americans in their 30s, 40s, ages 50-64 and among those 65 and older. And the overall turnout rate rose with each age group, peaking at 78% turnout among seniors.

2. Turnout among Asian Americans jumped the most

Turnout rose among all racial and ethnic groups in 2020, although Asian Americans saw the largest increase, from 48% turnout in 2016 to 62% in 2020. The rise is extraordinary given that Asian turnout had consistently lagged the national average in presidential elections, ranging from 41% to 48% since the 2000 election.

Hispanic turnout also reached a majority for the first time, with 53% voting in the 2020 election, up seven points from 46% in 2016 and six points above the previous high of 47% in 2008.

White Americans turned out at the highest rate for any racial or ethnic group, with 73% casting ballots in 2020, up from 65% in 2016 to the highest level in census surveys since 1988. However, White voters continued to decline as a share of the electorate, in line with generational demographic changes: They made up 71% of all voters in 2020, down from 74% in 2016 and from 81% in 2000.

3. Where high Black turnout had the biggest impact

Turnout among Black voters grew to 66% in 2020, up from 61% in 2016, albeit slightly lower than 2008 and 2012 when Obama was on the ballot. Last year, Black turnout reached 70% across eight competitive states where the presidential election was decided by fewer than five percentage points, up from 63% in 2016.

Rising turnout among Black voters had the clearest impact in Georgia. The State Election Board provides more precise data on Black turnout than the census, reporting that 60% of Black registered voters cast ballots in 2020, up from 56% in 2016. The net increase of more than 221,000 Black votes was much larger than Joe Biden's 11,779 winning margin and was likely decisive given that exit polls find Biden won Black voters by an 88% to 11% margin over Donald Trump.

4. Those with 'some college' did a lot more voting

Education is a core dividing line in political participation, but in 2020, Americans of all levels of formal education voted at much higher rates than four years earlier. The biggest shift came among those in the middle of the educational spectrum with some college education or an associate's degree, but not a bachelor's degree. Turnout rose from 63% to 72% among this group from 2016 to 2020.

Turnout grew to 90% among postgraduates and to 84% among those with a bachelor's degree, also highs since 2000. And while turnout was lower among adults with a high school diploma (54%) or less (36%), turnout was up by four to five points among both groups from 2016.

5. Men and women voted more, but the gender gap persisted

Turnout increased by seven percentage points among men and six points among women from 2016 to 2020. Women maintained their long-term advantage in overall turnout rate, with 70% casting ballots compared with 66% of men. The gender gap was slightly larger in the eight most competitive states in the presidential election, where 74% of women voted, compared with 68% of men.

What drove extraordinary turnout in 2020, and will it continue?

The broad surge in voter participation in 2020 - despite risks from the coronavirus pandemic - likely reflects the extraordinary stakes Americans saw in the presidential election and polarized views of Trump that was evident in pre-election polls.

A Pew Research Center poll last summer found a record high 83% of registered voters said it "really matters who wins the presidential election." A September Washington Post-ABC News poll found more than 6 in 10 registered voters saying a Trump or Biden victory would represent "a crisis for the country." Turnout in future elections will likely depend on whether Americans believe the stakes are as high as people saw them 2020.

The ways Americans voted also changed in 2020, with most Americans casting ballots before Election Day for the first time, after many states expanded the availability of mail-in voting in response to the coronavirus. Turnout in future elections could depend on how much states continue to offer such options for voters to cast early ballots. Georgia, Florida and Texas have passed laws restricting mail-in voting, moves that follow Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud.

And while 2020 marks a year of epic participation, roughly 1 in 3 eligible voters still did not cast ballots, meaning turnout still has room to grow.

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