It’s Election Day and I just got finished voting, but why?
From the title of this piece you’d think that it would be a waste of time but that’s not entirely true. Ultimately votes count, it’s just that not every vote counts the same, none count as much as they should and ultimately some don’t count at all.
Let’s address those one at a time, this is the point where those CGP Grey videos I linked in my first political post (https://benjaminlittlesolutions.com/getting-electoral-inefficiency/ ) will come in handy. The short version, as you should recall from grade school, is that each state has a number of electoral votes that is roughly proportional to its population shifted slightly so that less populous states aren’t purely overshadowed by the more populous ones. The presidential election isn’t actually a national election, it’s a series of state elections to determine who gets the entirety of each states votes. This is done in most states by a winner takes all system. Your guy gets greater than 50% of the votes in the state, he gets the entire state, no matter how slim the lead.
The outliers in this system are Maine (4 votes) and Nebraska (5 votes). They are often incorrectly stated to proportionally allocate their votes but in actuality they just have a more granular winner take all system based on congressional districts. This opens up an entirely new series of issues, not the least of which would be redistricting aka gerrymandering, but I don’t have the time to address those for 9 votes. The point is, its winner take all, and not everyone has to follow the same rules.
Now, when I say that some votes don’t count at all I mean this, thanks to winner take all once a certain vote threshold has been reached every vote after that has no bearing on the outcome of the election. For example, say that your state has 1 million registered voters. The second that one candidate has 500,001 votes they have won that state. In close races or cases of terrible voter turnout, or both, this may not be an issue but if you live in a state that overwhelmingly votes one way the state may be won or lost before you get a chance to make it to polls if you don’t get up early.
Even if your vote does count, how much does it count for? The answer is actually, “Depends on where you live.” As a voter your personal measure of influence in an election is basically the number of your state’s electoral votes divided by the number of people who vote. For math nerds;
#EV/((StatePop x %Register) x %Vote)
The % variables are there to allow precision analysis. You can actually generalize pretty well just by dividing the electoral votes by population and assuming that the other two variables are close across most states. This is where that shift to artificially inflate the influence of smaller states kicks in. You see, no state gets fewer than 3 electoral votes, fair enough, but with the actual proportional population distribution of the country and the fact that there is a hard cap on the number of the votes in the voting pool, 538, states like Wyoming should only get 1 or 2. So those votes are taken from more populous states. #EV goes up while StatePop stays the same for Wyoming and friends while California, Texas, Pennsylvania and others go the other way. The end result is that at its most extreme a Wyoming resident’s vote is worth four times the vote of Californians on a per electoral vote basis.
If you’ve watched those Grey videos you’ll have seen what happens when you apply the winner take all approach to the imbalanced vote issues. He goes into it in some detail but the short version is that you can lose the 14 “most important” states outright, like not even be on the ballot level of loss, but if you can squeak out the slimmest majority in the 36 other states where the votes technically count for more you can get a majority of the electoral college votes with just under 22% of the popular vote.
This is, of course, incredibly unlikely, but the system allows it so we have to accept it as a possibility.
We have had presidents who have lost the popular vote before though. 1824 is an oddity, neither candidate garnered the required number of electoral votes and the House of Representatives appointed the less popular candidate John Quincy Adams, possibly because they had met his opponent, Andrew Jackson and were rightly sacred of him. Since then we’ve had three presidents who have managed to win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote (all numbers care of the Federal Register);
Rutherford B Hayes – Won by 1 Electoral Vote, lost the popular vote by about 250,000 in 1876
Benjamin Harrison – Won by a huge 65 Electoral Votes, lost the popular vote by 90,000 in 1888
George W Bush – Won by 5 Electoral Votes, lost the popular vote by 540,000 in 2000.
That’s quite a lot for 56 presidential elections.
So, does every vote count? Sort of. If enough people decide that their votes don’t count and therefore decide not to vote then their absence certainly counts. Beyond that, even if your state is locked in before you reach the voting booth, the powers that be do look at the final numbers. A powerful turnout can turn a win into a mandate and a poor one can turn it into a warning. They may not act on that but they see it. Numbers tell a story and there isn’t a politician alive that doesn’t have someone whose main job is to change those spreadsheets and graphs into the message of the people. Take for example the scenario of a party that performs well across the board except a few key candidates that were vocal on one specific issue who tanked. That’s a far more powerful message on what the people want than simple poor turn out numbers which simply indicate dissatisfaction or apathy.
So, vote, but be an informed voter. Every vote is a message whispered into the night and while a single whisper may not be heard, if enough of us are whispering in unison, they’ll get the message and it will sound really creepy.
Next time, the final entry, I promise. What can possibly be done about this system?