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EXPLAINER: 1876 election holds record for highest turnout

Voters line up before polls open on Election Day at a precinct in Warren, Mich., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Voters line up before polls open on Election Day at a precinct in Warren, Mich., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman) (Copyright 2020 Associated Press)

The voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election was massive by recent standards. But it didn't come close to surpassing the record set in 1876.

That year, 81.8% of eligible American voters went to the polls.

The winner was Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, though he received fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden. Because 20 electoral votes were disputed, neither won a majority of the Electoral College, the election went to the House of Representatives, and it set up a commission that awarded the presidency to Hayes.

No reliable data is available until 1828. But during the last two-thirds of the 19th century, voter turnout of more than 70 percent of those eligible was common — often reflecting sharp discord. The second highest turnout — 81.2 percent — was in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln defeated Stephen Douglas. Even before Lincoln took office, seven Southern states seceded.

In 1920 and 1924, turnout dropped to 49.2 percent and 48.9 percent, respectively, as women gained suffrage and the number of eligible voters doubled. In most years since, somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent voted; the last time more than 60 percent voted was 1968, when Richard M. Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey and turnout was 60.7 percent.

The worst turnout in recent years — 49 percent — occurred in 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton won a second term by defeating Republican Bob Dole.

In 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, 59.2 percent voted.