This year, more people voted early than ever before. And though it’s too early to tell, some predict overall voter turnout in 2020 will be the highest in more than a century.
The numbers are striking. As of Nov. 2, more than 97 million Americans had already cast their votes, either by mail-in ballot or through in-person early voting. That’s more than double the 2016 U.S. total of 47 million early votes, according to the U.S. Elections Project. Those early votes total more than 71% of all U.S. votes cast in 2016.
In North Carolina, more than 4.5 million people voted early — 95% of all votes cast in 2016 — putting the state on track for a total in excess of 5 million votes for the first time ever.
So what’s driving voters to the polls? Will the high turnout continue through Election Day? And what does the record turnout mean for this and future elections?
Perfect storm of factors
Jason Roberts, professor of political science in the College of Arts & Sciences, points to three factors driving people to vote.
“First is that often when we talked to people 10 or 15 years ago, they said politics was boring,” he said. “Well, regardless of what you think of the president, he’s not boring. He’s a reality TV star. We’ve turned politics into reality TV, for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.”
Second, he said, is the fact that Donald Trump and his opponent, Joe Biden, present stark contrasts in terms of personal style and governing philosophy.
“The people who dislike the president, really, really do not like him. The people who are pro-Trump are very, very pro-Trump. So you have people who are dug in,” Roberts said. “That creates more interest and excitement.”
And third, in a word: pandemic.
“When things are going well in the country, people don’t pay as much attention as when there is a crisis,” he said. “So it’s really a perfect storm. It’s not like we were headed for a boring election before the pandemic, but it has raised the level.”
Mail-in voting looks nothing like what it would have looked like without the pandemic, he said. “In Orange County, where I’m on the Board [of Elections], in 2016 we had a little over 4,000 mailed-in ballots.” As of Oct. 29, the Orange County Board of Elections had processed 22,000 mail-in ballots, with more to come.
“Early voting has been popular in North Carolina and seems to be growing,” he said. “What’s interesting is that even with the record vote by mail coming in, the early voting numbers are similar if not more so than in 2016. So it’s not like mail-in voting has cannibalized the early vote.” He says what remains to be seen is whether Election Day voting drops off or remains steady.
The role of social media
You can’t ignore the role of social media and other digital technologies in driving voters to the polls, said UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Assistant Professor Shannon McGregor, who researches the intersection of social media and political processes, including elections, news coverage and public opinion.
Even before Americans began casting early votes this year, Facebook created its nonpartisan Voter Information Center and set a goal of helping 4 million people register to vote. “They put a link at the top of people’s feed,” McGregor said. “You click on that and then go register.”
On Oct. 26, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company had registered 4.4 million voters. Google offered a similar shortcut to the various state online-voter registration sites.
Social media also mirrors and amplifies the heightened emotions people feel these days. A lot of people consider voting a matter of “life and death along two different lines,” McGregor said. One is the pandemic, and the other is racial injustice. “These two very salient things are really, really consequential and are driving more and more people to the polls.”
McGregor said a lot of people are showing themselves “performing” their civic duty on social media. “You don’t want to look like you haven’t voted. Everyone’s taking a selfie with their voting sticker for their followers and friends on these different sites. We’ve seen that grow over the last decade or so.”
There’s a downside to the digital interconnectivity, of course. “There’s so much political information on these sites, and it can be manipulated by foreign actors and national actors,” McGregor said. “We can’t view social media as just good or just bad for democracy and voting. There are positives and negatives.
“All of that social media activity and politics is heightened even more at this moment because we’re trapped at home,” she said. “We’re all on our social apps more than we used to be.”
Energized voter blocs
This year’s election is shaping up more like 2008 than 2016 in terms of demographics, said Christopher J. Clark, associate professor of political science in the College, who studies Southern politics and underrepresented groups — African Americans, Latinos, women — in elected office. Energized by candidate Barack Obama, African Americans voted at a rate higher than whites in 2008. But in 2016, the percentage of Black voters dropped considerably, while the percentage of white voters rose. A similar correlation happened with young and old voters. The percentage of voters age 18-29 dropped considerably from 2008 to 2016, while the percentage of voters 60 and up rose slightly.
Now, in 2020, voters have had four years to gauge President Trump’s rhetoric and policies. “I cannot divorce the presence of President Trump from the energy we see among voters,” Clark said. He noted the president’s unwillingness to condemn violent white supremacists at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and his unwillingness just last month during the first presidential debate to condemn another violent white supremacist group, the Proud Boys. “Trump has shown African Americans that he is someone who is hostile to their interests.”
The energy ramps up in a battleground state, like North Carolina. “There’s definitely a relationship between record turnout and being in a swing state, because you know your vote counts,” Clark said.
Clark, who teaches a class on Southern politics, said that turnout is high despite documented efforts in North Carolina and other states to keep Blacks and other minorities from voting. Or maybe because of it. “When voter suppression happens, groups like the NAACP identify it, communicate it with their members and that galvanizes people to vote,” he said.
So what might this year’s record voter turnout mean for future elections?
“There’s evidence to support that voting is habit-forming,” said Clark. So first-time voters energized by the 2020 election are likely to continue voting in future elections.
McGregor agreed. “Whatever happens, the outcome of this election is going to be very consequential, and so that’s likely to make a more lasting impact on those who voted,” she said. “In terms of how that relates to social media, I think that we will continue to see people performing their duty of voting. It might not be on Facebook. It might be TikTok or some platform that doesn’t exist yet. But I do think that social media will continue to be a place to express political opinions and learn about things.”
Roberts feels certain about one thing. “The popularity of these early voting measures means that it’s going to be hard for states to pull back on them. I think we will be early voting henceforth.”
Historic high marks
During the last century or so, the high marks for voter turnout were the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, when 64% of voters cast ballots, and the 1908 contest between Republican William Howard Taft and Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, which saw a 66% turnout.
By comparison, 61.6% of eligible voters turned out in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain. In 2016, 58.1% of eligible U.S. voters cast ballots.
This year could top the 1908 numbers. But the early historic comparisons can be misleading because the electorate is so much larger today.
“The 1908 election was before we guaranteed women the right to vote, before the voting age was lowered to 18 and before the Voting Rights Act effectively allowed African Americans to vote,” Roberts said. “We had very high turnout, but the denominator was very small. We’ve never had a larger electorate in terms of the proportion of people in society who are eligible to vote, so to get a high turnout in this era is in some ways more difficult.”
Around 240 million Americans, including those living overseas, are eligible to vote in 2020. To top 66%, more than 158 million must cast a ballot. Before the polls opened on Election Day, more than 97 million had already voted.