Preparing for the 2020 U.S. presidential election looked different than in the past. Yes, some steps in the process remained the same. Voters had to be registered and were encouraged to participate; campaign messages were shared; equipment and procedures had to be prepared for processing ballots.
But the traumas of COVID-19, the economic effects of responding to the virus and the systemic racism that has been brought to the national spotlight by protests in response to anti-Black violence have led to an expansion of vote by mail along with record numbers of voters. The 2020 election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden provided a historic turnout as more Americans voted this time around than any previous election.
In 2008, Barack Obama earned 69,498,516 votes in the presidential election, the most ever up to that point. Now it is Biden, Obama’s former vice president and the new President-elect, who surpassed the tally and set a new record with 77 million votes and counting. With the voter turnout in record territory, Trump also exceeded Obama’s record, with over 72 million votes, as of Wednesday morning.
According to Bloomberg, at least 161 million Americans voted in the 2020 election and the 2020 turnout already exceeded the 2016 turnout in 43 states.
“The fact that so many of our fellow citizens participated in this election is a positive sign of the health of our democracy and a reminder to the world of its strength,” said former U.S. President George W. Bush in a statement via Instagram on Sunday.
Many stories of police brutality and discrimination against African Americans and other people of color this year are similar to those of 20-plus years ago. A new breed of civil rights activists is trying to bring about a reckoning with America’s racist past.
Despite the coronavirus still being very much alive in the U.S, crowds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest for days on end about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the other people who were victims of police brutality in the last year alone.
It could be simply that the current crop of 18 to 21-year-old young adults are now eligible to go vote because they weren’t old enough in the previous election. But it could also be the more progressive mindset taking a new shape through crowds of peaceful protestors standing up for what they believe in, attempting to make their voices heard after years of being overlooked.
Some of this year’s high turnouts in the polls could be attributed to the expansion of access to early voting and mail-in ballots, with many states changing their policies due to the coronavirus pandemic. More than 100 million ballots were cast during the early voting period, a large increase from prior years.
This presidential election also saw a surge in young voters between ages 18-29. According to data from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, a research center at Tufts University, the numbers of young people voting early skyrocketed, particularly in states that were critical to the final results, such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
A total of 383,500 young voters in Georgia had voted early in the 2020 election. That’s over 64 percent of the total youth vote in the state in 2016. Georgia ended up being decided by just over 14,000 votes, going in favor of Biden and flipped in favor of a Democratic candidate for the first time since the 1992 election.
In Pennsylvania, 226,900 young voters had cast their ballot early, representing 25 percent of the total youth vote four years ago. That state was decided by less than 50,000 votes in 2020. And in Arizona, 225,000 had turned in the vote early, representing over 63 percent of the total youth vote in 2016. Arizona’s final 2020 results were decided by less than 13,000 votes as well.
Young people could wield significant political power: Millennials and some members of the Generation-Z make up 37% of eligible voters, roughly the same share of the electorate vote that baby boomers and older voters (pre-boomers) make up, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.
“The future of this country and the future of the world, to a significant degree, rest upon the fact whether young people in America will vote,” U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders said in an interview with TeenVogue. “[They] are a generation that has stood up against racism, sexism, against homophobia, against xenophobia, against religious bigotry. If the younger generation voted at the same percentage rate as the older people do, we would be in a position of transforming this country.”
All the data continues to highlight that youth interest and participation in this year’s election is at historic levels, as a rising generation of young people seek to act on their power to drive political change on issues they care about. It’s also the result of work by advocates who have worked tirelessly to engage youth, especially young people themselves, who have marched, talked politics with their peers, registered their friends and families – all while dealing with a crippling global pandemic.
The message is crystal clear: engagement in young people has paid off. And strong youth voter participation can continue in future election cycles to come if the commitment to uplifting youth voices and investing in the infrastructure that supports youth engagement also continues.