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At the time of writing this question, a total of 143.1 million votes have been counted in the 2020 US Presidential election (73 488 248 democratic, and 69 622 407 republican). Most estimates have put the turnout somewhere in the region of 70%, albeit with quite a large confidence interval (e.g. Bloomberg).

What I don't naïvely understand as an outsider is this: if you take this as a point estimate of the size of the electorate, you get 143.1 / 0.7 ≈ 200 million. But the USA is estimated to have a population of around 330 million (forgive me for citing Wikipedia for this claim).

Why is there such a big difference? I know that in most countries demographics differ from the electorate due to either age, immigration status, or people currently being in prison. Yet it doesn't seem right that nearly a third of the population of the united states is either not a citizen, under 18, or currently in prison!

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    currently or formerly in prison, in many states (if not all) – Federico Nov 6 '20 at 10:09
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    Is the turnout % of eligible people, or those registered to vote? – pjc50 Nov 6 '20 at 10:47
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    census.gov/newsroom/stories/… - Might be of interest. Total voting age population 250m, eligable citizens 230m. Gets you much closer already. – Jontia Nov 6 '20 at 11:25
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    There are over 80 million below age 20 according to Wikipedia – Ross Millikan Nov 6 '20 at 22:30
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    I wish the answers here gave more precise figures. – Andrew Grimm Nov 7 '20 at 4:48
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First of all, the ~70% figure is for how many people that Bloomberg estimated cast votes. The 143 million figure is the number of votes that had already been counted as of the time of this question (it's up to 148 million as of the time of this answer.) From the Bloomberg article:

Bloomberg’s model anticipates the total number of votes cast for president to range from roughly 157.1 million to 165.0 million (68.6%–72.1% of the citizen voting-age population).

So, the 70% number is referring to approximately 160 million voters, not 143 million. This would give a total electorate size of roughly 229 million. Of course, they also state in this same quote exactly how they're getting the total electorate size - it is indeed total voting-age population.

Yet it doesn't seem right that nearly a third of the population of the united states is either not a citizen, under 18, or currently in prison!

Indeed, it is true (just from those first two alone.) Children alone account for the vast majority of this. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.3% of the U.S. population is under the age of 18. They estimate the U.S. population as of July 2019 as 328,239,523, so approximately 73.2 million are ineligible to vote because they are too young.

The Census also indicates (in the same source as above) that 13.5% of U.S. residents were foreign-born (which they define as anyone who is not a U.S. citizen at birth) between 2014 and 2018. More usefully for purposes of this question, according to this table - available for download from the Census' website, the Census estimated that, as of 2019, there were approximately 21,449,000 non-citizens over 18 years of age residing in the U.S. This represents another 6.5% of the total U.S. population.

So, the observed discrepancy between total population and electorate is explained simply due to them being under 18 (22.3%) or not citizens of the U.S. (6.5%,) totaling 28.8% of the overall population just from these two factors. According to the table linked above, the Census estimated that there were 229.1 million American citizens over age 18 as of 2019, which indeed does match Bloomberg's estimate of the total electorate size.


While this is not affecting the electorate size numbers in the article being asked about (since it explicitly states that it's specifically using voting-age citizen population,) it's true that disenfranchisement due to felony convictions is significant, though this will be manifested in statistics as a reduction in voter turnout, not as a reduction in the size of the electorate.

The advocacy group Sentencing Project (which advocates for restoration of voting rights for convicted felons) estimated that, for the 2020 elections, 5.2 million people were ineligible to vote due to felony convictions. This is approximately 1.6% of the current U.S. population. However, it does not seem clear from their methodology section whether or not they accounted for the portion of convicted felons who wouldn't be eligible to vote anyway due to either not being a citizen or being under age 18. I don't see any discussion of age or citizenship status in their methodology section, though I haven't examined their spreadsheets. Since not all felons would vote even if they could and it's not clear whether children and non-citizens are already being excluded from these numbers, it seems likely that the actual effect this has is probably reducing turnout by somewhere in the ballpark of 1% to 1.5%.

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  • The US has a significant number of non-citizen residents who belong to the population, but not to the electorate. (Here are official numbers, you have to multiply the foreign-born and non-naturalized percentages).
  • The US disenfranchises many people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. As I understand it, the percentage is much higher than in other democracies where felons may be disenfranchised.
  • As David pointed out, citizens also have to register before voting. The question just how easy that is (or should be) is highly controversial.
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    Don't forget that the 330 million figure includes people younger than 18 who are not eligible to vote. – divibisan Nov 6 '20 at 20:31
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    @tj100 This may be what entry level textbooks state but the reality is more complex and can vary state by state. For example FL voters had approved that felons who had completed their sentence would be re-enfranchised. – Robert Nov 6 '20 at 21:10
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    @tj1000 It can still be a surprise to foreigners unfamiliar with the US system. The US system is unusual (as the answer states). – gerrit Nov 6 '20 at 22:49
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    @Robert The US did disenfranchise them. The government was the direct cause of their disenfranchisement, not the convicted themselves. – yeah22 Nov 7 '20 at 0:18
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    @tj1000 the proposition that criminals are responsible for the punishment they receive does not mean that the punishment is imposed by the criminal him- or herself. Did Timothy McVeigh commit suicide? Did Al Capone put himself in prison? No. The argument breaks down even further if you consider the wrongfully convicted being punished for crimes they did not commit. – phoog Nov 7 '20 at 1:52

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