It’s almost that time again when we Americans will spend millions of dollars and countless hours deciding who our next President will be. Annoying friends, coworkers, parents, and the like will all spew their opinion at you in the hope that you will become a more informed voter (and hopefully vote for their candidate!!). Political affiliation is one of the strongest opinions people have and you will find this out repeatedly over the coming months. Many will express their facade of political activism by casting their vote and going back in their hole for four years. If you don’t believe me wait a few months, you will find this out – multiple times. The funny thing is, most of the time, and almost always for a large percentage of the country, one’s presidential vote really doesn’t matter. There are multiple reasons for this and as usual, the devil is in the details.
The electoral college is the main culprit. This antiquated system of voting was useful 200 years ago when communication across long stretches of land was much more difficult and small sample sizes weren’t a big deal anyway when most peoples’ votes counted somewhere between 0 and 3/5 of one vote. Conveniences like the internet and modern polling systems did not yet exist. We needed a way to tally votes efficiently in order to make the process more manageable. States could pool their votes to cast one large vote for a single candidate based on population. Winning a state 51% to 49% gave a candidate 100% of the votes from that state. Useful when you have a group of geezers counting 10 million votes by hand in the 1800’s. Not so much when we can have a computer calculate exact totals instantly. This voting process undermines the value of individual states (and all voters within) and can lead to some funky election results.
There have been many cases where the electoral college doesn’t cause any disruptions and has picked the correct candidate just as a popular vote would. There have been many landslide victories (Bush v. Gore anyone??). But in all seriousness, there have been plenty of instances when the voting is so strong for one candidate the electoral college is fine. It is the close races where it really shits the bed. Let’s start with the way it undermines the value of individual states.
Since 1900, there have been four close electoral races. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson beat out Charles E. Hughes 277 to 254 (23 votes for all you math majors). Jimmy Carter bested Gerald Ford 297 to 240 (57) in 1976. The closest contest came in 2000 when George W. Bush beat Al Gore 271 to 266 (5). Bush’s second victory in 2004 was also close at 286 to 251 (35) over John Kerry.
Consider this: in 2008, 12 states, plus D.C., had less than five electoral votes. 25 more had 11 votes or less. Say you had full control of one of these 38 voting districts. Other than one election (2000) your vote could not have swayed the election result. This, even taking into consideration that switching a state from blue to red (or vice versa) would effectively double the vote change (minus votes for blue, plus for red). The number of votes per state changes over time but the concept remains the same. For example, in 1916 the vote was 277 to 254. Wilson the democrat took out Hughes the republican. If you could control all of Kansas’ electoral votes (10, for Wilson) the effective sway in votes would be 20, resulting in a vote of 267 to 264. Wilson still wins. Boil it all down and if you ever lived in any of a number of states with 11 or less votes, other than in 2000 (when it still didn’t matter, more on that later) your vote has literally never affected anything. And trust me, I haven’t even gotten to the depressing parts yet.
Next let’s examine the power of an individual’s vote. In the 2008 election McCain won the state of Missouri by .1% (.1% for all you math majors) of the popular vote. The final tally was 1,445,814 for McCain and 1,441,911 (3,903 difference). If you and everyone you know (unless you are really, really popular, which you aren’t) lived in Missouri and voted, you still wouldn’t have changed a thing. That’s with a POINT 1 PERCENT DIFFERENCE IN VOTE (by the way they had 11 electoral votes so the final outcome didn’t matter anyway). The idea that your one vote really matters is quite simply a lack of understanding of statistics. And I know what you’re thinking “well if everyone thought that way then no one would get anything done blah blah blah…” Shove it. Your one vote didn’t change a thing, and if it did, hopefully you lived in very populated state.
Compounding this problem is that in a hell of a lot of states, politics are rooted deeply enough into such a large percentage of a given state that nothing will change the fact they are voting a certain way. I’m from Oregon. In the most populated areas, we like our beers hoppy, our Teva’s wet, and our democrats politicking. We haven’t voted for a republican since 1984 when Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale 525-13 (not gonna bother). Conversely in a state like Texas (I’ve never been so this is a blatant stereotype) they like their music twangy, their gun’s a shootin’, and their republicans a representin’. The last time they voted blue was back in 1976. It was actually quite a close race, but let’s face it, in 2012, they ain’t goin blue. It seems that the only states that really matter on an election to election basis are the swing states, the Ohio’s, Florida’s, and Pennsylvania’s of the world.
Which leads me to another sobering point. Electoral results are manipulable. in 2000 when Bush “defeated” Gore, Florida was a curious character. A swing state with a popular vote so close that when the results came out for Florida, news sources were slapping the state with red and blue like a good old fashioned match of Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots. It was so close that no one really knew who won and a lot of press came out that votes were miscounted. So what did we do? We did what any modern government would have done! We utilized our vast technology and computing power to… not do a recount. Curiously, the victor had a brother who lived in Florida and just happened to be governor at the time. Gore won the national electoral vote and quite possibly the vote in Florida as well. Buuuut screw it, it’s just the presidency right?
In conclusion, your vote pretty much doesn’t matter. Whether you live in over half the states in the country, trust statistics, have an extremely biased home state, or are victim to questionable political ethics, we all share this electoral futility. If you live in a swing state, go for it, but you’ll still have some of these factors going against you. The point of this discussion is not to jade you on politics or life in general. It’s really just a matter of most people are wasting their breath. I encourage you to take the energy you put toward discussions and arguments with friends and family, dollars thrown at political causes, time spent watching TV or reading about the elections and refocus it. Use these resources on doing something that is important to you. If you truly enjoy national politics, act locally and affect change in a place where you can actually accomplish something. Vote for local laws. Spend time in the community. Learn a new language. Have some fun with friends and family. Because no matter how you slice it up, your vote doesn’t matter.