Today we are here to tell you something that most newspapers won’t: Your vote doesn’t really count.
Oh, it counts in this year’s congressional elections, in the referendum on whether Virginia should adopt a constitutional amendment to ban partisan gerrymandering, in whatever local races are on the ballot (such as Roanoke mayor and city council). And, of course, it counts as part of a citizen’s fundamental rights in a democracy. So yes, everyone should vote. But your vote doesn’t really count in the presidential race.
The only people whose votes matter are those who live in the handful of states considered swing states. Your presidential vote in Virginia really doesn’t matter, unless Virginia suddenly finds itself up for grabs. Republicans would like to think it is, but there’s no real evidence to suggest that. The most compelling evidence of Virginia’s irrelevance is from the campaigns themselves. This isn’t where either President Trump or Joe Biden are spending their time. In 2016, Donald Trump held at least six campaign events in Virginia between June and November. This year he’s been here just once — and his recent appearance in Newport News was partly aimed at being in a media market that reached eastern North Carolina, a state that does count this year. Hillary Clinton was here twice in 2016; Biden hasn’t been here at all.
This is a direct consequence of the Electoral College. Most Americans’ vote doesn’t really count because they live in states whose outcome isn’t in doubt. But your cousin in North Carolina or your aunt in Florida — their votes are a lot more valuable than yours because those are states that could tip either way.
Let’s get one thing straight: The Electoral College isn’t going to be abolished. That would require a constitutional amendment —and it’s hard to see 38 states voting in favor of that. The Electoral College gives added weight to small states, which certainly aren’t going to give up that power. More to the point, it’s hard to see Republicans willing to give up that power — since those small states tend to be Republican. It is, though, worth an academic discussion. For a long time, there really wasn’t a difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote. Now, though, such splits are likely to become more common — as the population grows in a handful of large, Democratic-voting states at a much faster rate than in smaller, Republican-voting states, some of which are actually shrinking. Is it good for American democracy if the popular vote winner routinely loses the electoral vote? This question becomes more uncomfortable when we consider that those large, Democratic-voting states are far more diverse than the small, overwhelmingly white states that get an extra bump in power through the Electoral College (which takes their House representation, which is based on population, and then adds two more votes). Why should white voters get a weighted advantage?
For now, Republicans have a vested interest in defending the Electoral College. That won’t be the case if and when Texas someday flips from red to blue (it’s been trending that direction). Granted, Newton’s Third Law of Motion often applies to politics, too — for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. The difference is Democrats might pick up massive Texas (38 electoral votes and growing) while Republicans get Minnesota (10 electoral votes) instead — not exactly an even trade. When that day comes, Republicans might conclude they are better off with the popular vote than the electoral vote.
It’s often argued that abolishing the electoral vote would render small states — and rural voters — meaningless. That’s not entirely true. Right now, there’s really just one small state that’s a battleground state — New Hampshire. And rural voters now only matter depending on where they live — rural voters in California and North Dakota are equally out of luck because those states votes are pre-ordained, while rural voters in North Carolina and other swing states matter a lot more.
It is true, though, that the dynamics of a popular vote election would be very different than what we are accustomed to. Candidates from both parties would wind up campaigning in places they now don’t bother to. Four years ago, Trump’s best state — in terms of actual number of votes received — was Florida, where he polled 4,617,886 votes, enough to carry the state narrowly. Now, what was his second-best state? In terms of actual number of votes received, it was California. Trump won 4,483,810 votes there. Now keep in mind that Trump had no incentive four years ago to even try in California because he knew he’d never carry the state. In a popular vote election, Trump —or future Republicans — would spend time in California, not to carry the state because that wouldn’t matter but to squeeze out more votes from the state’s conservative voters. Likewise, they’d spend time in upstate New York.
So far, that would seem to validate the argument that a popular vote system would give more attention to big states (just different big states than the ones that get attention now). However, Republicans would also want to spend time campaigning in parts of the South, the rural Midwest and the Rockies that are now foregone conclusions — again, to drive more votes. Meanwhile, Democrats would have to go to places they don’t now. They’d certainly spend time in the South trying to motivate Black voters — whose ballots now don’t really make a difference in most Southern states. They’d also want to harvest Democratic votes out of cities in states that are now reliably Republican — for instance, St. Louis and Kansas City in Missouri. This would be a very different campaign than what we’re accustomed to — every vote would matter, including yours.
There are some hazards to a popular vote election that don’t get much attention. Now, close calls are limited to individual states — which means any recount would be limited to those states (think, Florida 2000). In a popular vote election, any recounts would have to be nationwide, with much more potential for controversy and mischief.
How likely would a recount be? Let’s apply Virginia’s rules — which allow a recount if the margin is 1% or less. Out of 57 presidential elections, we’ve had six decided by margins that slim — 10.5%. Those years were 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960, 1968 and 2000.
What’s the greater risk to democracy — a national recount, or a popular vote winner denied the presidency because their voters don’t live in the “right” places?
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