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2018’s record-setting voter turnout, in one chart

It’s the highest level in a century for a midterm election.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Voter turnout in 2018 appears to have reached the highest level of any midterm election in a century.

According to the United States Elections Project, a sort of database about the United States electoral system, 49.3 percent of the voting-eligible population turned out to vote this year, with more than 116 million ballots being counted so far. That’s the highest voter turnout percentage since 1914, when 50.4 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. It surpasses 1966, the previous high, when turnout was 48.7 percent.

It also reverses a trend toward declining interest in midterm elections. Voter turnout in the 2010 midterms was 41.8 percent. In 2014, it was 36.7 percent — the lowest in 72 years.

But voter turnout in midterm elections still pales in comparison to years when Americans are voting for president: In 2016, for example, turnout was 60.1 percent, and in 2012, it was 58.6 percent.

Chart showing voter turnout from 1912-2018.
Voter turnout, 1912–2018.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who runs the United States Elections Project, noted in a post about this year’s turnout rates that the numbers may change as election officials continue to count ballots and all results are officially certified.

In a phone interview, he said that he’s confident this year’s turnout numbers are historic. “1966 is the middle of the civil rights movement. We had Vietnam going on. It’s a tumultuous time in our politics. If you look at 2018, that’s your parallel,” he said. “The country’s doing well economically, but Trump is really driving the conversation. He’s impassioned people both for and against him.”

Counting votes can take a while for a number of reasons — in some states, mail-in and absentee votes arrive and are counted after Election Day, and provisional ballots take time to sort out — so getting final turnout numbers can be a long task.

Thus far, it appears that turnout in 25 states surpassed 50 percent this year, and in five states, it was more than 60 percent: Minnesota (64.3 percent), Colorado (62.7 percent), Montana (62.1 percent), Oregon (61.5 percent), and Wisconsin (61.2 percent). Both Colorado and Oregon have mail-in voting.

Turnout was high in states with competitive races, as expected, but voters also came to the polls in states where there weren’t any really notable contests going on, such as North Carolina. “That’s highly unusual to see that kind of engagement where there’s no top-of-the-ticket race, which is what typically drives turnout in any midterm election,” McDonald said.

Voter turnout in 2018 in North Carolina was 49.3 percent. In 2014, when there was a US Senate race there, turnout was 41.2 percent.

It’s not yet clear how voter turnout broke down by party, though the so-called “blue wave” many were predicting ahead of the election did take shape in many parts of the country. Democrats took back the House of Representatives, picking up dozens of seats.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver pointed out, some 60 million people voted for Democrats in the House this year. That’s a big number, considering about 63 million people voted for Trump in 2016.

To be sure, the 2020 elections are still two years away, and it’s impossible to make predictions this early in the game. But voters do appear to have been extra-engaged in 2018, and how that will translate over the next couple of years remains to be seen.

“Trump’s not going away in 2020,” McDonald said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see record turnout.”