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Number of votes cast in U.S. presidential elections 1824-2020

Published by Aaron O'Neill,
Since 1824, when the popular vote was first used to determine the overall winner in U.S. presidential elections, the share of the population who participate in these elections has gradually increased. Despite this increase, participation has never reached half of the total population; partly due to the share of the population below the voting age of eighteen, but also as many potential voters above the age of eighteen do not take part, or are ineligible to vote. For example, in the 2016 election, approximately twenty million U.S. adults were ineligible to vote, while over 94 million simply did not participate; in this election, Donald Trump won the electoral college with 63 million votes, which means that 19.4 percent of the total U.S. population (or 27.3 percent of eligible voters) voted for the current president.

Development throughout history

While the figures for the 2016 election may appear low, over 42 percent of the total population participated in this election, which was the third highest participation rate ever recorded (after the 2008 and 2020 elections). In the first election decided by a popular vote in 1824, only 350 thousand votes were cast from a total population of 10.6 million, although this increased to over four million votes by the 1856 election, as restrictions that applied to non-property holding white males were gradually lifted. Participation levels then dropped during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, as those who lived in Confederate states could not vote in 1864, and many white southerners were restricted or discouraged in the following election. Although universal suffrage was granted to black males in the wake of the Civil War, the majority of black Americans lived in the southern states, where lawmakers introduced Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s to suppress and disenfranchise the black vote, as well as poor white voters.

The next major milestone was the introduction of women's suffrage in 1920, which saw voter participation increase by seven million votes (or seven percent) between the 1916 and 1920 elections. Between the 1910s and 1970s, the Great Migration saw many black Americans move away from the south to northern and western states, where they faced fewer obstacles when voting and greater economic mobility. This period of black migration began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time many Jim Crow laws were repealed in the south, through legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Female participation also grew gradually, and has exceeded male voting participation in all elections since the 1980s. The minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in all states in 1971, although this seemingly had a minimal impact on the short-term trajectory of voter participation.

Recent elections

The 1992 election was the first in which more than one hundred million votes were cast, which was almost 41 percent of the total population. All elections since 2004 have also had more than one hundred million votes cast, which has again been more than forty percent of the total population. Another key factor in the increase in voter participation is the fact that people are living longer than ever before, and that those aged 65 and over have had the highest turnout levels since 1992. While some figures may be subject to change, the 2020 election set new records for voter turnout. Despite the global coronavirus pandemic, which many thought could cause the lowest turnout in decades, a record number of voters cast their ballots early or by mail, setting a new record of votes just shy of 160 million. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump received 81.3 million and 74.2 million votes respectively, both beating Barack Obama's previous record of 69.3 million ballots in 2008.

Voting populations and number of votes cast in U.S. presidential elections from 1824 to 2020

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Statistics on "History of U.S. presidential elections 1789-2020"

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