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Senior Black Man Voting with a Mask
A senior black man casts his ballot on election day.Adam Kaz / Getty Images

American voters show up in droves, push turnout to 120-year high

I'm delighted to see turnout reach levels unseen in over a century, but those who see the results as proof that our voting system is fine are mistaken.


Though there were hurdles put in their way in many parts of the country, Americans were encouraged to vote in one of the most significant election cycles in the nation's history. There's evidence that many answered the call.

NBC News this morning highlighted a striking chart that showed voter turnout reaching a 120-year high in this year's elections. CNBC, relying on NBC News data, fleshed that out in a little more detail this morning:

At least 159.8 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, according to NBC News projections Wednesday morning. The projected vote total marks a record high number of ballots cast in a presidential election and the highest voter turnout rate among eligible citizens since 1900.

To be sure, population growth matters when examining the numbers. Or put another way, looking at the raw total of ballots cast is important, but it makes for difficult comparisons given that the size of the U.S. population is vastly larger than it was in generations past.

But that's where percentages come into play. CNBC's report added, "Around 239.2 million Americans were eligible to vote in 2020, according to the U.S. Elections Project. NBC News' projected 159.8 million ballots cast in 2020 would constitute about a 66.8% voter turnout rate among eligible citizens -- the highest since 1900."

And it's tempting to end the conversation on this satisfying note. American voters have a reputation for failing to make themselves heard, especially as compared to voting rates in other leading democracies around the world, so there's reason to feel a degree of pride -- whether one is satisfied with the election results or not -- when the U.S. electorate shows up in ways none of have seen in any of our lifetimes.

The fact that so many voters cast ballots during a deadly pandemic makes the projected totals that much more heartening.

But the electoral sunshine is not without some clouds. The massive-for-the-United-States turnout is impressive, for example, but it also serves as a reminder of the inherent flaws in the electoral college. Projections suggest the Democratic ticket will defeat the Republican ticket in the popular vote by millions of ballots, but as of this minute, we don't yet know whether that will be enough to secure a victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

It leads to the realization that the nearly 160 million Americans may hear a difficult message: "Congratulations on the historic turnout, but power is going to the candidate most of you didn't vote for. Again."

Our voting system remains deeply flawed, even when many participate in it. Indeed, the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo took aim in his new column at the "terribly inefficient, inaccessible, unfair and just plain backward" our voting process remains.

High turnout notwithstanding, the glaring lesson of this year's election is that we cannot go on this way. From the endless lines to the pre-election legal wrangling to the president's constant effort to undermine the process, every ballot cast this year was a leap of faith: Would it get there in time? Would it get there at all? Would they try to toss it out because you voted from a car? Would they throw it out because you signed your name carelessly? Would judges be called upon to alter the mail-in deadline after the election had already begun? Would you ever be able to find the one dropbox in your sprawling county? And, after all that, would anyone believe the count, anyway?

I'm delighted to see turnout reach levels unseen in over a century, but those who see the results as proof that our voting system is fine the way it is are mistaken.