What Didn't Happen?

Election 2016: A Very Brief Overview

Election 2016: A Very Brief Overview 

CONTRARY TO EARLY projections, voter turnout in 2016 ultimately exceeded that of 2012, both in raw numbers and in participation rate. According to results certified by state election boards, a total of around 139 million voters went to the polls in 2016.4 Meanwhile, around 92 million of the country’s estimated 231 million eligible voters did not cast ballots.5 This is a participation rate of 60.2 percent, up from 58.6 percent in 2012.6 As is well known, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 2.87 million more votes than Republican Donald Trump, but lost in state-allocated electoral votes 306-232.

Data from the US Census Bureau show that the composition of the 2016 electorate departed in some ways from recent historical trends, and that the increase in overall participation was not distributed evenly across groups. Notably, turnout rates declined across several Democratic-leaning voter groups, as we detail below. In the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, falling participation rates among non-white voters meant that white voters grew as a share of the electorate. Exit polls and post-election survey data meanwhile reveal that these white voters— and especially certain sub-groups thereof—gave Trump wider margins than they gave Mitt Romney four years earlier. It took both of these dynamics—depressed turnout among Democratic-leaning groups, and shifts in segments of the white electorate toward Trump—to ensure that Clinton would not prevail in the Electoral College. 

  • 4. Around 2 million fewer were cast for the office of President.
  • 5. US Elections Project and Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016: A Report on Voter Turnout in the 2016 Election, March 2017, p. 8. Another 6.1 million voting-age citizens were barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Over half of these – almost 3.1 million – were persons who have already completed their prison sentences. See Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016, The Sentencing Project, 2016.
  • 6. See US Elections Project and Nonprofit Vote, America Goes to the Polls 2016. The US Census Bureau estimates the 2016 participation rate at 61.4 percent, but this is based on voters’ selfreported participation, not actual ballots counted.