The historic 2020 election — which saw over 160 million voters turnout — didn’t start with the series of primaries earlier this year or even the series of candidate debates in 2019. 

For election officials and directors, the 2020 election started much, much earlier.

“There’s this idea that election officials wake up a couple months before a general election and are like ‘I know what I’ll do, I’ll put on an election,’” says Amy Cohen, Executive Director at the National Association of State Election Directors,”but really preparations started years ago.”

Four years ago to be precise. That’s when election officials took notice issues surrounding cybersecurity and voting equipment in the last presidential election and began working immediately to solve for them ahead of the 2020 general election

“Something particularly notable is that something like 90% of voting equipment has a paper record which is a huge step in the right direction and a huge increase from 2016,” Cohen said.  

All the preparation and hard work paid off as, despite rampant disinformation campaigns and new expansion of absentee ballots to alleviate fears of COVID-19 exposure, a collection of election officials declared “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.

So what did election officials and those responsible for ensuring our elections run smoothly see in 2016 that clued them into managing the biggest voter turnout since 1900?

Michael McDonald who tracks voter turnout at the U.S. Elections Project, has a few ideas.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump is the reason we saw record turnout in 2020. Whether you love him or hate him, he drives passion and drives people to vote.” 

The first indicator was the 2018 midterms which broke voter turnout records and compared to the 2014 midterm election which saw the lowest turnout since 1942. 

But Trump isn’t the only factor McDonald saw.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game changer for everyone, including elections and how they were run in 2020. All eyes were on Wisconsin and Ohio who were the first states to run primary elections during the height of the first wave and the results frightened many including McDonald who became “concerned about the capacity of election officials to the November election and there was talk amongst election officials that there was potential that we could have a failure.” 

However, state and election officials learned lessons from Wisconsin and Ohio. To ensure safe voting states took several paths — delayed their primaries, properly installed COVID-safe procedures and expanded vote by mail — which resulted in turn out rates not only recovering but in some places it was even higher than pre-pandemic levels. “That was our first indication that we could be in for record [2020] turnout,” McDonald said. 

The method in which a record number of Americans voted also had a huge impact on turnout — with early voting and voting by mail seeing unprecedented use in 2020. While early voting has seen an upward trend since the early 90s, this year’s election broke expectations with 70% of voters saying they voted early — 36 million did so in-person and 77 million did so via mail. “States that run all ballot mail in elections tend to have higher turnout rates,” says McDonald. “You can see that with the massive increase in states like Hawaii and Utah.” Conversely, states like Texas and Tennessee that did not expand mail-in voting “tend to clump at the bottom of the turnout spectrum.”  

If there is one big lesson to be learned from this year’s election is that it takes time and preparation to ensure success. And while the 2021 contests may feel like a distant planet right now, knowing that officials spent four years securing our election process should inspire your organization to start doing the necessary #VoteReady work you need to do in your communities right now. And we’re here to help. 

Whether you’re a veteran at doing nonpartisan voter engagement or your organization is just now thinking about it, we have the resources you need.