Because of Trump’s impact on the electorate, political number crunchers were predicting a record turnout in 2020 before the year even began, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein reported last year. Forecasts suggested that more than 150 million Americans would vote this fall—a level that would dwarf the 139 million who cast ballots in 2016 and represent the highest voter-turnout percentage in more than a century. The onset of the pandemic this spring threw those predictions into doubt, forcing states to postpone primaries and causing a turnout plunge in a few states, such as Illinois and Ohio, that did hold elections in March and April.
But many states responded by adopting expansions to early and mail-in voting that election reformers have been pushing for years, often without success. And several states that held primary and runoff elections over the summer, including Massachusetts and the 2020 battlegrounds of Georgia, Texas, and Florida, broke turnout records. The Georgia election was particularly encouraging from a turnout perspective because voting soared and easily eclipsed the 2016 level despite widespread reports of long lines and malfunctioning voting machines, which could have suppressed the vote. “There were significant issues, don’t get me wrong,” Bonier said, “but what we saw on the Democratic side was higher turnout in terms of the number of people voting than we’ve ever seen in the state.”
The early-voting totals so far in the general election have only bolstered the case for a record turnout. Although early voting is not a reliable predictor of election outcomes, the sheer number of votes that have been cast by mail or in person more than a month before Election Day has astonished voting experts. More than 4.7 million Americans have already voted early or mailed back their ballots, and turnout in some states, including Wisconsin and Virginia, has exceeded 15 percent of the total votes cast in 2016. In Wisconsin’s Dane County, nearly one-third of the 2016 vote is already in, with four weeks still to go.