It’s estimated that more than 159 million Americans cast their ballots in the 2020 election — a rate not seen in more than a century, and one that provided the surest sign yet that the election was, in fact, a referendum on President Donald Trump’s polarizing first term.
Get-out-the-vote campaigns emerged from every point along the political spectrum: Celebrity endorsements for Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, proliferated on Twitter and Instagram; in Georgia, Stacey Abrams and a robust coalition of grassroots organizers helped turn the state blue for the first time in 25 years; GOP-aligned coalitions like the Lincoln Project and Voters Against Trump bought up TV ad space and rented billboards in Times Square, all dedicated to lambasting the president.
Complicating an already high-stakes election was Trump’s bluster and misinformation about mail-in voting, which ultimately didn’t hinder a record number of mail-in, or absentee, ballots. An estimated 65 million votes were cast remotely, leading to a feat of counting that saw vote tabulators working tirelessly in the aftermath of Election Day before the race was called in Biden’s favor.
But while the election has been decided — despite Trump’s false claims to the contrary — many Americans have been left confused and on edge, trying to parse why some of their neighbors voted the way they did. Democrats don’t understand why, for example, after four years of a presidency full of racist messaging and a botched response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 election wasn’t a cleaner sweep for Biden. Republicans, meanwhile, want to know how they lost key swing states they won four years ago.
Who were the Black and Latinx voters Trump picked up by a margin of 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively? Who were the Trump supporters who’d had enough of the chaos and switched to Biden in 2020? And what does all of this say about how much we know about what motivates people to vote?
The 2020 election represented a pivotal moment of political awakening for many thousands of Americans — a chance to find their voice, whether through voting across party lines or casting their ballot for the first time ever — in an election that promised to shape the contours of the country for decades to come. For some, the choice was politically motivated, but for others, the decision to vote was the result of a growing sense of social obligation, galvanized by the increasingly partisan discourse playing out on social media.
“I had people who would get angry with me when they found out that I had never voted before,” Maggie Pearl, a 25-year-old from Brooklyn who voted for the first time in the 2020 election, told Vox. “I felt more social pressure this year than I’ve ever felt in the past. People would say, ‘Why don’t you care what happens to this country?’ I think it took seeing other people’s passion, and the momentum it took to get Biden elected, to really turn me into someone who will vote actively in the future.”
Vox spoke with seven first-time Democratic and Republican voters about what made them cast their ballots. Here’s what they had to say about their participation in what some have described as the most fraught election in American history. Interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Those who voted for a Democratic president for the first time
Nini Jones, 57, Orlando, Florida
“The shift for me was four years of listening to Trump’s mouth”
I usually vote for the Republican ticket — I’ve been a registered Republican for 30-plus years. I did vote for Trump in 2016, and the biggest thing for me then was that I wasn’t a Hillary [Clinton] fan.
Most of the time, Black people are Democrats, but for me, I’m kind of a rebel — I have to research and find things out for myself. I researched the Republican Party, and that’s where I aligned on the economy, on immigration, and other things, so I chose to register as a Republican.
The shift for me was four years of listening to Trump’s mouth. I couldn’t do it anymore — the way he degrades people, the divisiveness, the bullying, the racist talk, putting down women. It just started to get to be too much.
He is attacking the Black community when it comes to the whole racial aspect of people getting gunned down in the streets by police officers. And when he gets up there and boasts about how he’s treated the Black community better than Abraham Lincoln — I just can’t with this guy.
It felt important to me to vote in this election because if we had four more years of Trump, I think we would’ve been deeply divided, where it would be almost to the point of no return. “Make America Great Again,” what does that mean? What does that envision? Are we going back to the ’50s? The ’30s? The 1800s? I just think America would’ve been going down a deep pit, and that there would be a lot of suffering in this country if Trump were still at the helm.
I actually have to be honest, I’m going to change my party and register as an independent at this point until I see what happens, because I just can’t stand for what I’m seeing happening in the Republican Party.
Gerard Harbison, 62, Lincoln, Nebraska
“This is a long-term shift for me; there’s absolutely no way I’m ever going back”
I’m a naturalized citizen, naturalized in 2003 from Ireland, and I registered as a Republican in 2004. In January 2020, I switched my registration.
When I first came to Nebraska in 1992, a couple of my colleagues would say that the weird thing about Nebraska is that Republicans are actually to the left of the Democrats. It was a relatively moderate Republican Party when I got here, and it’s just shifted more and more to the right since then. There’s an element of frog-boiling in this: You’re there and you’re identifying with them and you aren’t noticing exactly how far they’ve pivoted.
Back in the 2000s, my colleagues in physics would ask how I could support Republicans when they don’t believe in evolution and so on, and I’d say, “Yeah, there are quite a lot of them like that, but there are a lot of Democrats who don’t believe in GMOs or vaccines,” and so on. But it really isn’t split so much anymore; the climate change denial started getting to me, and obviously evolution denial I think is worse now than it was 20 years ago. And then Trump was nominated, and that sort of did it for me. I voted for Gary Johnson in 2016.
The Trump presidency was what made me notice the water had gotten hot, but if anyone thinks the GOP is just about Trump, they’re deluded — it’s part of a general right-wing swing of the Republican Party that’s been going on for a long time. So it was an election of not just what was wrong with Trump but what was wrong with the GOP, who will say anything to get elected. I’m convinced they believe very little of what they actually profess.
This is a long-term shift for me; there’s absolutely no way I’m ever going back. I think there’s room for a reasonable conservative party in America, but I see no evidence the GOP is changing or will change. It’s a near-fascist party right now, as far as I’m concerned.
Kevin Nather, 33, Cleveland, Ohio
“This year I looked at Biden, and he seemed to legitimately care”
I’ll be candid and say I voted for Trump back in 2016. Quite honestly, I wasn’t even sure then how either candidate would perform, but I knew that I felt like we needed a big change in this country. He had a great message: “Make America Great Again.” Did I really fall in and think he was going to make everything better? No, but I was actually kind of hoping that he sincerely wanted to make a change in the country.
However, over the years, I didn’t get the feeling that he truly cared for the American people. It didn’t seem like he cared for anyone. I think that was a big deciding factor going into this election, that I believed he seemed to cause a lot of division. This year I looked at Biden, and he seemed to legitimately care.
I ultimately had a big departure from the Republican group overall over the Covid response. I was on Facebook, and people were protesting having to wear masks. I was trying to just say, “Hey, please just be safe, we don’t know what’s going on with this,” and I was called a bully, I was told that I was trying to take away somebody’s constitutional rights by saying they should wear a mask. I hate to generalize people, but a lot of the people that were protesting having to wear masks seemed like they were following everything Donald Trump had to say. It was almost like they praised this man as a god, like he was infallible.
For me, that was a big moment that really kind of clicked for me, and I just felt like I needed to sit back and reevaluate. I ended up actually deleting Facebook a couple of months ago because it was just too much.
Going forward, I think I’m open to any candidate, but right now, with my thoughts and beliefs and ideas where they are, I’m leaning more toward the Democrats. In the end, politicians are always going to say a lot more than they’re actually going to do, but I want to see people who truly care and who truly want to make America better.
Maggie Pearl, 25, Brooklyn, New York
“This election, I was living my truth way more than I was four years ago”
I was 21 and in college in Omaha, Nebraska, during the last election, and you can imagine how conservative it is there. I had just recently come out to my family as gay, and they were kind of conservative as well, so I didn’t want to just throw so much in their face about wanting to vote blue then — it would have been like coming out to them a second time, in a way.
The candidates in that election just made me feel like I would have been voting for the lesser of two evils, so it didn’t appeal to me too much. When Trump got elected, I also definitely felt like, “It’s just going to be another old white guy — how much could things change, really?”
This election, I was living my truth way more than I was four years ago. The main reason I voted was because I want to get married, and I was afraid that if Trump won, I wouldn’t be able to have that luxury.
I also felt like this election was higher-stakes than the one we had four years ago; this time, I felt unsure of what the aftermath would be, law-wise, and what it would mean for my personal life. If there were changes to same-sex marriage or adoption rights … I’m thinking more about my future family, I guess, and that’s really why I voted: to help myself, but also to help others like me.
Those who voted for a Republican president for the first time
Jennifer, 43, Illinois
“I started listening to Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, and they made a lot of sense to me”
I’ve always voted Democratic, and my family has always been Democrats; we still are. I voted for [Barack] Obama both years and loved him, and in 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton.
Believe it or not, I did not make up my mind to vote for Trump until the last couple of months. I’ve had Twitter forever, but I never used it for anything, so I actually made a separate Twitter account a while back and just followed conservatives. I started listening to Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, and they made a lot of sense to me; I liked a lot of what they had to say.
When it comes to Biden, I was not happy with his tax rate proposal. I don’t agree with defunding the police, and that’s a big issue for me, and I know that a lot of Democrats are really pushing that. I’ve seen all of the rioting and the looting, and that’s not Trump supporters that are doing that for the most part. I see Biden and [Vice President-elect Kamala] Harris both kind of pandering to those guys, just like I see Trump pandering to the far right. [Note: Biden has repeatedly declined to support calls to defund the police, instead committing to investing in community projects and mental health resources that will allow officers to do their jobs more efficiently.]
This election was a lot more polarized than ones we’ve had in the past. My mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, they’re Never Trump; they’d vote for anyone besides Donald Trump. They would literally disown me if they found out I support him, it’s that bad.
Jennifer’s last name is withheld to protect her anonymity.
Tyler Reeves, 29, Meridian, Idaho
“When people say that voting for Trump makes you a bad person, I tell them they don’t actually know who they’re saying these things to”
I’m 29 years old and had never voted in an election before this one, so this was my first time ever voting.
I’m not a very political person, and normally I try to stay away from political arguments and politics in general because I don’t want to lose a friend. I mostly like to agree to disagree, and I always value friendship and family over politics. When it came to voting in past elections, I never really had any interest.
But this year, I decided that I wanted to get my voice out there and be heard. I was happy with the last four years of Trump’s presidency, and I am a Christian, so he’s the candidate that most aligns with my values on abortion.
I do think that the stakes are higher now, and social media played a role in getting me out to vote. Celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Mark Ruffalo, and some others were just being really aggressive on Twitter about saying, “You have to go vote this way.” I’m not the person that’s going to look up to a celebrity and say, “Yeah, I want your political advice.” How I voted was a personal choice; I have my own voice and life.
When people say that voting for Trump makes you a bad person, I tell them they don’t actually know who they’re saying these things to, especially when they’re calling people racists and homophobes. I grew up with friends who were Black and Hispanic, I’ve had gay friends, and I’m a quarter Hispanic myself, so getting those kinds of attacks really hurts. For me, being honest about my beliefs is the only way I know how to defend myself.
Mark Bailey, 62, New York City
“Voting for a Republican for the first time felt liberating to some degree”
My mother raised me to be a Democrat, like almost all Black people are raised. So it’s only recently that I started to identify with the Republican Party.
The Democratic ideology has changed a lot over the past few years, and now it’s been taken over by so-called progressives. I feel that the Democrats’ platform regarding abortion is irresponsible, and I feel that their policies of trying to do everything for everybody where no one completely gets help is a farce. I have grown up in poverty my entire life, but every election year, especially presidential election years, we Blacks vote for the Democratic candidates mindlessly without accounting whether they’ve done anything to help us or whether they deserve our vote. Our condition has not improved since the ’70s, but we continue to vote for them.
Voting for a Republican for the first time felt liberating to some degree. Like I said, Black people are basically raised to vote Democrat. I got a lot of flak for saying I liked Trump from relatives, long-lost relatives even. I had one relative that I connected with recently on Facebook, and we started chatting and reminiscing, and as soon as I mentioned I supported Trump, boom — I was blocked.
I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In her case, I was basically just following the Democratic narrative, and that was the only thing guiding my vote. I never particularly liked her. But in 2020, I felt that the Democrats’ platforms and policies and ideals have shifted. Black people might be politically liberal, economically liberal, but we’re socially conservative at heart.
Brianna Provenzano is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn.
Jessica Chou is a Taiwanese American independent photographer currently living and working between Los Angeles and San Francisco. For this series, Chou photographed our voters remotely from the Bay Area. The voters used their own personal phone devices and were directed by Chou through a video phone call.