On December 19 2020, the following screenshot was shared by someone going by the name Thor Arne to Facebook, questioning the math of the 2020 presidential election, which delivered Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden a resounding victory over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
The claim he made (archived here) was as follows: Of 133 million registered voters’ votes in 2020, Donald Trump received 74 million — leaving only 59 million available votes, against Joe Biden’s purported 81 million votes in total:
Arne added “Hvordan er dette mulig?,” translated by Facebook as “How is this possible?”; that post was shared more than 360,000 times by December 29 2020 (with no intervention from Facebook, despite their claims of cracking down on election- related disinformation.)
The post was a screenshot of a December 18 2020 tweet from the account @MSMFactChecking:
Donald Trump got 74 million votes and
There are 133 million registered voters in the USA
If every single registered voter went out and voted there would only be 59 million votes left for Biden. How did he get 81 million votes? pic.twitter.com/ml0WpmEHp7
— MSM FACT CHECKING (@MSMFactChecking) December 18, 2020
@MSMFactChecking’s tweet did not include citations (instead, offering up a sarcastic animated image) and the tweet was part of a longer thread, which included a string of “just to clarify” and “just for complete transparency” disclaimers. At no point did @MSMFactChecking provide a citation for their figures that backed up their “big if true” claim.
It began with the tweet depicted above:
Donald Trump got 74 million votes and There are 133 million registered voters in the USA [–] If every single registered voter went out and voted there would only be 59 million votes left for Biden. How did he get 81 million votes?
Immediately thereafter, @MSMFactChecking made a statement in direct conflict with their primary claim — that the respective vote totals of Trump and Biden “didn’t add up” when considered alongside the sum total of 133,000,000 (or 133 million) registered voters:
Just to clarify there were 213,799,485 registered voters in 2020 of which conflicting sources say turnout was between 60% – 65%. I averaged it out at 62.5% which means just over 133,500,000 registered voters voted. 74,000,000 Trump + 81,000,000 Biden =155,000,000
Just for complete transparency, even at 65% turnout the total would be just over 138,000,000 voters resulting in over 155,000,000 votes. However you look at it, it doesn’t add up.
@MSMFactChecking went from claiming there were only 133 million total registered voters in the 2020 election, and — without even pausing for a breath — said in a tweet immediately thereafter that there were in fact 213.8 million registered voters — a percentage change of 60 percent between the two figures. And quite obviously, the claim that the vote totals didn’t “add up” read quite differently when using @MSMFactChecking’s own second figure of 213.8 million voters versus their first figure of 133 million voters.
If the numbers were accurate as given in the first post for Biden and Trump (81 million and 74 million), that would total around 155 million votes cast in total — leaving 58.8 million registered voters who did not vote.
Donald Trump Got 74 Million Votes, Biden Got 81 Million Votes
Trump received 74,222,958 votes in total, and Biden received 81,283,098.
The sum of those two numbers without third-party votes counted was 155,506,056.
… And There Are 133 Million Registered Voters in the USA
False claims there were “more votes than voters” were prolific among the maelstrom of disinformation that appeared after the November 3 2020 election, such as one early (and completely false) claim that Wisconsin had more votes than voters.
Rumors of this sort typically involve out-of-date numbers or pure fabrications. It wasn’t clear which of the two was the case for @MSMFactChecking’s tweet, but we found two possible candidates.
According to the Brookings Institute, a record 133 million votes were cast in the 2016 election — if that figure was the source, similar turnout in 2020 would not suggest there were “more votes than registered voters.” Moreover, the August 2020 context ought to suggest the higher-than-133-million voter turnout was anticipated:
What the data from 2020 tells us is that there is every reason to expect a record turnout in 2020. We got a preview in 2018 when the turnout in the midterm elections was the highest since 1914, even though Republicans were less mobilized than Democrats, a difference unlikely to be repeated this year. “I expect voter turnout to be exceptional, perhaps the highest in over a century, since 1908,” said Michael McDonald, who directs the U.S. Elections Project. “I sometimes refer to it as the ‘storm of the century’,” he added. Turnout in 1908 was 65.7%, compared to 54.2% in 2000 and 60.1% in 2016. If McDonald is correct and turnout reaches the 1908 level, votes cast in 2020 could total more than 145 million, up from 133 million in 2016.
We spotted the same figure in a May 2013 Pew Research article about a Census Bureau report on the 2012 election:
According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 Current Population Survey November Supplement on Voting and Registration, an estimated 133 million U.S. citizens voted in 2012. That estimate is higher — by 4 million votes — than the national tally of 129 million votes cast for president. The gap in reported votes and the actual vote tally is the widest since 2000 (when the gap was 5.4 million votes) and marks the first widening of the gap since 1984. The Census Bureau’s November  supplement to the CPS is the most comprehensive data source available for examining the demographic composition of the electorate in federal elections, but it relies on a post-election self-reporting by survey respondents. Because of what is sometimes described as “social desirability bias” some survey respondents may say they voted when in fact they did not.
On November 4 2020, CNBC reported that NBC News projected the number of individual votes cast in 2020:
At least 159.8 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, according to NBC News projections [on November 4 2020].
If Every Single Registered Voter Went Out and Voted, There Would Only Be 59 Million Votes Left for Biden. How Did He Get 81 Million Votes?
With respect to how that “adds up”:
- President Trump: 74,222,958 votes;
- President-Elect Joe Biden: 81,283,098;
- Votes for Trump added to votes for Biden: 155,506,056;
- Total number of projected votes cast in 2020: 159,800,000;
- Difference between projected votes cast for Biden and Trump and total number of votes cast: 4.3 million.
According to NPR, only 67 percent of eligible voters voted in November 2020, with roughly 80 million Americans sitting out the general election.
NPR indicated that 29 percent of the 80 million were not registered to vote, leaving 56,800,000 citizens who were. If we add the figure of 56,800,000 to the 159,800,000 projected number of votes cast in 2020, that totals 216,600,000 Americans registered to vote in 2020 — not 133,000,000. The tweet was off by 83.6 million voters — more voters than voted for Trump or Biden individually.
On December 18 2020, a Twitter account called @MSMFactChecking claimed that “Donald Trump got 74 million votes,” “there are 133 million registered voters in the USA,” and presupposing that “if every single registered voter went out and voted there would only be 59 million votes left for Biden,” finally asking, “how did he get 81 million votes?” Of course, if nearly 30 million extra votes were counted nationally in 2020 (or in any other year), it would be a major news story. It wasn’t, because that did not happen — the total number of votes cast in 2020 was around 159.8 million — with more than 200 million registered voters.