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Fact check: Clarifying the comparison between popular vote and counties won in the 2020 election

Posts circulating on social media point to the number of counties won and number of votes cast for President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, suggesting that disparities in those numbers are evidence of fraud or election irregularity. This is misleading. Given counties vary widely in population size, so does the number of votes cast per county.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Examples are visible here , here . Most iterations include a screenshot of a tweet by conservative activist Charlie Kirk dated Dec. 20, 2020 here , which has been retweeted over 48,400 times as of the publishing of this fact check (archived version archive.vn/0phvm ). 

The post reads: “Barack Obama: — 69,000,000 votes — 873 counties. Donald Trump: —75,000,000 votes —2,497 counties. Joe Biden: —81,000,000 votes —477 counties ...And we’re not allowed to question his “victory”.”

Some posts with this claim referring to voter fraud or election irregularities read: “It’s a mathematical impossibility!!!! Let me make it even more plain. THERE ARE NOT 81 MILLION PEOPLE IN THOSE 477 COUNTIES!!!” ( here ),  “Wake up people! This is the integrity of our United States elections. It’s not about Democrat or Republican. It’s about American’s future and current Corruption!!! ( here )  and “You don’t have to be good at math to see the fraud.” ( here )

The Biden and Trump data in the posts appears to match the information reported by the Brookings Institute on Nov. 7 ( here ). On Dec. 8, the think tank updated the report to say Biden had won 509 counties and Trump 2,547 counties, according to “unofficial results from 99% of counties”. 

In 2008, Obama did obtain 69,498,516 votes, 52.93% of the popular vote ( here ), while only winning 28% of the counties ( here ).

The increase of votes but decrease of counties won by Biden compared to Obama’s 2008 election is not a sign of voter fraud, as some posts infer and as this article aims to explain.

Rogers M. Smith, professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania ( here ) , told Reuters via email that “focusing on counties won as an indicator of the likely popular vote winner makes no sense whatsoever”, as they “vary tremendously in population size”. 

As explained here by the U.S. Census Bureau, population is not homogeneously distributed across the country. In 2017, out of a total of 3,142 counties and county equivalents more than half of the population inhabited just 143 counties.

As reported by Reuters here , the Republican base is concentrated in thousands of less populated counties across the country’s mid-section, while the Democratic base is centered in the most populated cities, like Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta.

For example, looking at per-county results here , Biden obtained 71.04% of the votes in Los Angeles County, the most populated county with over 10,039,107 people ( here ).  He also led the vote in Cook County, Illinois (where Chicago is situated, here ) and Harris County, Texas (where Houston is situated, here ) the second and fourth most populated counties. 

Smith said that “Biden did well in virtually all of the most populous counties in the U.S. which, along with a larger electorate explains why he defeated Donald Trump by over 7 million votes, despite carrying many fewer counties”.

Coincidentally, Gregory Huber, professor of Political Science of Yale University ( here ) told Reuters via email that “while it is true that Biden won the majority in less than half of all counties, he won votes in all counties, and he won counties where most people live.”

Huber also noted that the presidential election is determined by votes cast in the Electoral College. This means that “it makes no difference who wins any particular county”, because almost all states (but Nebraska and Maine,  here ) award their state’s Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote, and these are “totaled across counties in the state,” he added. 

Technically, Americans cast votes for electors, not the candidates themselves. Electors are typically party loyalists who pledge to support the candidate who gets the most votes in their state. Each elector represents one vote in the Electoral College. More on the electoral college and how it functions can be read here and here   .

HIGHEST TURNOUT

In the 2020 election, more votes were cast both for Biden and Trump than for previous candidates. They received 81,283,098 votes (51.3%) and 74,222,958 votes (46.8%) respectively, according to the data by Edison Research reported by Reuters here .

These numbers reflect the record-breaking voter turnout ( here )  in the election, marked by a sharp jump in mail-in and early in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic ( here ).  The electorate’s turnout, estimated by Edison Research at around 66.9%, sets a new record.

Over the years there has also been an increase in the voting-eligible population (VEP) ( here ), which also explains a higher turnout. In 2020 there was a total of 239,247,182 people eligible to vote according to the U.S. Election Project, a nonpartisan website run by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida ( www.electproject.org/2020g ). In comparison, in 2016, there was a VEP of over 230 million people ( www.electproject.org/2016g ). The evolution of the VEP in the United States is visible here ).

These posts feed into a false narrative pushed by the Trump campaign of widespread voter fraud during the presidential election (  here  ). In fact, U.S. election security officials have said the election was “the most secure in American history” ( here  , here  ).

VERDICT

Missing context. It is misleading to correlate the number of votes cast with the number of counties won, as counties vary widely in size and a state’s Electoral College votes are generally cast for the popular vote winner in their state.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here   .

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