Insights from the 2020 General Election: First-Time Voter Dip - What does it Mean?

While 2020 saw record voter turnout across the board, there was actually a significant decrease in the number of voters who cast a ballot for the first time compared to 2016. In the 2020 election 16,911,179 first time voters made up 10.9% of the electorate, compared to 2016 when 19,779,807 first time voters accounted for 14.3% of the vote.

This is notable for a few reasons: first, a larger share of eligible voters turned out in 2020 (over 154 million or 66.3% of the electorate) than in any other U.S. election in over a century. Second, because of the pandemic, Democrats were not able to engage as robustly in in-person efforts to identify new voters like voter registration drives and canvassing, which may have contributed to this decrease. Third, while expanded early voting and vote by mail likely helped already-registered voters participate more easily, without similar modifications to registration requirements, first time voters faced an additional obstacle to participation.

Of first time voters in 2020, 7.3 million (43%) were modeled Democrats and 6.8 million (40.2%) were modeled Republicans. This was a decrease from 2016 for Democrats, when 9.2 million first time voters cast ballots, making up 46.5% of the vote. While Republicans only saw a slight increase in the raw number of first time voters from 2016 to 2020 - from 6,760,133 to 6,799,288 votes - their overall share of first time voters relative to Democrats’ jumped from 34.2% in 2016 to 40.2% in 2020.

This decline in first time voter participation held across much of the country, with only eleven states and the District of Columbia showing net growth from 2016 to 2020:. The remaining 36 states available for count thus far (all except HI, MS, and ND) show a net decline in first time voters.

Of the states showing net growth, the top five in terms of percentage growth were: California (+63.0%), District of Columbia (+58.1%), Idaho (+48.8%), Alabama (+29.3%), and Maine (+28.4%).

In terms of demographics, the number of African-American first time voters decreased from 1.68 million (8.5% of all first time voters) in 2016 to 1.31 million (7.8%) in 2020. By contrast, the number of Asian first time voters increased from nearly 600,000 (3.0%) in 2016 to over 830,000 (4.9%) in 2020, and the number of Hispanic first time voters increased from just over 2 million (10.5%) in 2016 to 2.3 million (13.7%) in 2020.

*Note, this data doesn’t include results from HI, MS, or ND as we don’t have complete files yet from these states.