Americans may have just crushed a voter-turnout record -- here's how 2016 compares to past elections

Historic division brought out voters in droves this presidential election. More than 46 million people had already voted before Election Day, breaking early voting records and fuelling Democrats’ confidence in clinching the presidency.

But by the time most of the votes had been counted, it became clear that nearly every poll’s expectation to crown Hillary Clinton as the 45th president was drastically wrong, and Republican Donald Trump would be heading to the White House. And that possible record-breaking turnout had a lot more asterisks attached to it.

The data available Wednesday afternoon show over 128 million ballots had been counted, according to the United States Elections Project. But results were still trickling in, so the overall turnout could end up being higher. That preliminary total suggests that only 56% of eligible voters actually voted this year.

For some Americans, the two names at the top of the ticket were so unpalatable that they opted out of voting for president at all, instead focusing on down-ballot races. In 14 states, more people voted for the senate races than voted for the presidency.

The highest overall voter turnout was 131 million Americans in the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, according to the American Presidency Project. This year’s turnout would have to surpass that mark to set the new record.

While 2008’s turnout sounds impressive, it wasn’t the highest percentage of voters that ever hit the polls.

That was in the race between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, when 83% eligible voters turned out. That election was similarly contentious to this year’s, with Hayes squeaking out a victory of 185-184 electoral votes after a lengthy political and legal battle.

Of course, that was before women had the right to vote, and when minorities were still routinely disenfranchised, so that high percentage mostly applies to white men.

While 2008’s overall total sounds impressive, only 58% of the VAP turned out to vote that year. The US population has increased over the last century, but voter turnout has decreased and stagnated in that time.

Here’s how voter turnout in US presidential elections compares over time:

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