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No, Voter Turnout Wasn’t Way Down From 2012

Stories are still circulating a week after the election that turnout fell sharply from 2012. That’s almost certainly not true. The confusion is the result of news outlets trying to pin down voter turnout figures quickly in a system that doesn’t count millions of votes until weeks after the election.

Approximately 58.1 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in last week’s presidential election, according to the latest estimates from Michael McDonald, associate professor at the University of Florida, who gathers data at the U.S. Elections Project. That’s down only slightly from 2012, when turnout was 58.6 percent, and well above 2000’s rate of 54.2 percent. Turnout may end up being higher than in any presidential election year between 1972 and 2000. (It’s already higher than in any midterm election since 1896, according to McDonald’s numbers, including the paltry 35.9 percent of voters who turned out two years ago.)


If your social media feed is anything like mine, though, you’re still seeing stories claiming only 53 percent or 55 percent of eligible Americans voted, which would represent the lowest turnout in at least 20 years. Those figures were based either on initial vote tallies (which inevitably rise as more ballots are counted) or on McDonald’s earlier estimates, which he is updating as more data becomes available. My own report Friday that turnout was 57 percent was based on estimates at the time, and it’s also out of date.

We won’t have final turnout numbers for weeks or months because some states are still counting ballots; millions remain uncounted. That means estimates based solely on votes counted so far will understate turnout — though already more presidential votes have been counted this year than in 2012 (contrary to reports that fewer voters turned out this year). In the meantime, most news organizations rely on estimates from McDonald.

While McDonald’s topline estimate of turnout has risen by just 1 percentage point since Friday, figures for individual states have changed far more: He now estimates turnout at 53.8 percent in California, which still has millions of ballots to count. That’s up from 45.5 percent on Friday. So here is a new version of the map we ran on turnout on Friday — itself, remember, subject to still more revision.


Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.