Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Does Your Vote "Count"?

I'm a very mild defender of the electoral college...more that I can imagine some reforms that would really be unfortunate, and others that I don't think would be significant improvements. What gets to me, however, is this kind of logic, here from James Joyner:
Republicans in California and New York and Democrats in Texas are for all intent and purposes non-voters. Candidates will swing by on fundraising drives but the outcome is not in doubt. The same is true, in any given cycle, for the residents of most states.
Look, most of the people reading this are absolute partisan voters (because only seriously high-information voters read any political blogs, let alone whatever tier this one is, and high-information voters are overwhelmingly likely to be solid partisans). Indeed, somewhere north of 80% of all voters are basically reliable partisans in presidential elections. And you know what? That means that no one is interested in your vote, even if you live in the closest state in a desperately close contest. In other words, electoral college or no, your vote isn't going to be the deciding one.

Yes, in the current system, you're going to be totally ignored if you live in Texas, and massively pandered to if you live in Florida. But not really: you, the non-swing voter, are going to be totally ignored regardless of where you live. So why do you care whether it's the swing voters in a handful of states or the swing voters in whatever areas get the best bang for the advertising buck?

And that's before you get to the basic math of the situation: from the perspective of an individual voter in a nation of 300 million and more, no, your vote isn't going to make a difference in a national election.

Now, yes, there are some policy implications of the electoral college and those matter, and fair enough. And yes, political is still to some extent geographical, so you're more likely to meaningfully participate in ways other than voting if you live in Ohio than in New York. And perhaps that's enough to make reform a good (if not an urgent) idea. Perhaps. But there really is something screwy in the assumptions of the anti-EC crowd about who "counts" and who doesn't in different types of election systems.


  1. Doesn't that kind of ignore GOTV, though? Like, sure, 80% of the country is really reliably partisan, but if Dems get their 40% to come out on election day, and Republicans only get 38%, well, that's pretty significant, right? So wouldn't it stand to reason that the parties put more of an effort to bring out even their strong partisans in swing states? Of course, as a high information voter, I'm also a very RELIABLE voter, so they're still not targeting ME, but I think it's something.

  2. I think the thing that such logic ignores are local election effects. A presidential election brings out a lot more voters, but once at the voting booth, those people are pulling levers for local and statewide candidates too. Someone who is more progressive than Obama going to the polls may vote for Obama nationally (and throw the vote away in Texas) but (s)he may be successful electing a congressman or the right school board member who is later a candidate in a larger election.

  3. "So wouldn't it stand to reason that the parties put more of an effort to bring out even their strong partisans in swing states? Of course, as a high information voter, I'm also a very RELIABLE voter, so they're still not targeting ME, but I think it's something. "

    In every campaign I've worked in, our 4 or 5 voters get the most fit. Perhaps in the last days of an election you might start to ignore the 5s. If I had a nickle every time a voter told me in GOTV calls "but I've already voted early..."

  4. Two points:

    First, I strenuously disagree with your assertion that high-information voters are overwhelmingly likely to be solid partisans. In my experience, the opposite is true. Yes, there are thoughtful, well informed voters who have thorougly studied the issues and come to the conclusion that only one party has any hope of saving the country, but for every one of those there seems to a potload of ignorant fools on both wings of the political spectrum whose motto seems to be "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up". Yes, the fanatical partisan reads blogs, but they tend to read only those blogs with which they agree. Independents, on the other hand, are independent because they tend to see advantages and disadvantages in the positions of each party on any given issue. They think.

    Second, I consider it almost a waste of time to argue about whether we would be better off without the electoral college, given that getting rid of it would take a Constitutional amendment, while more states benefit from the EC than are disadvantaged by it. Not gonna happen.

  5. Sullivan,

    Sorry, this is one where we have excellent data, and it's clear that high-information voters are highly partisan.

  6. Citation? Or are you being not entirely serious?

    (I will grant that your participants seem to be a cut above average. On many political blogs, expressing a non-doctrinal opinion risks a "What are you doing here? - this blug is for ****ists!" response.)

  7. Second, I consider it almost a waste of time to argue about whether we would be better off without the electoral college, given that getting rid of it would take a Constitutional amendment, while more states benefit from the EC than are disadvantaged by it. Not gonna happen.

    You obviously haven't heard of the Interstate Compact.

    Hendrik Hertzberg has been a tireless advocate of this project and has written a great deal about the material benefits of switching over to an NPV system, however we go about reaching that goal.

  8. Kylopod -

    Yes, I have heard of it - I just seriously doubt whether enough states would stick to it if it meant going against their perceived self-interests. Like Congress, state legislatures are free to reverse themselves at any time, so promises of future behavior must be taken with a grain of salt.

    It's easy to be principled - in principle.

  9. I think that the fact that the margin in any election is bound to be at least in the tens of thousands is one major advantage of a national popular vote.

    Close elections that come down to a few thousand or hundred votes in certain states run a danger of seeming illegitimate, or at the very least alienating voters. It also should it more difficult to sway an election with voter fraud, or perhaps more importantly, for accusations of voter fraud to gain any traction.

    I'm definitely inclined to consider the electoral vote one of the US's less harmful idiosyncrasies. (Unlike, say, over-representation of small states in the Senate, and the current system by which the major parties choose their pres nominees.)

  10. Sullivan:

    JB is absolutely right on what the political science literature says. For evidence, consider the battery of questions on political participation asked by the National Election Studies:

    Any of the questions there makes the point, but for sheer starkness, I like table 6D.5, asking people how often they follow politics. "Most of the time" gets 29% of Dems, 29% of Reps, and only 7% of Indies. (The ideology questions don't make as much sense, because a person has to understand "liberal" "moderate" or "conservative" to enter into that sample, and that's already restricting it to higher info voters)

    It makes sense, too. Nobody mans the battlements for "sensible moderation," Stewart/Colbert rallies aside.

  11. Jonathan, the important thing is the subjective perception that one’s vote matters -- not whether it actually does. Confirmed non-voters will point out that there’s no realistic chance that their one vote will decide a Presidential election… and they’re right. People vote based on their faith in the system and the idea that their vote will be joined by that of enough like-minded people. But if people live in a solid red or blue state, it’s impossible to maintain even that level of faith.

    People need to feel that their vote matters. But our current system easily conveys the perception that the decision is being made for us by voters in Florida, Ohio, etc.

  12. I agree with the first commenter. In a past life I worked for a political direct mail firm, and GOTV among solid D's was a major concern there.

  13. Jim (a different one)September 7, 2011 at 5:00 PM

    As a voter, and a high information partisan, my influence is not restricted to just my vote. When I want "my vote to count" I am not solely talking about my ballot. I also want the fact that as a high information voter I am also likely to be an opinion leader to be significant.

    I want not only my vote to "count" but to be able to use my overall participation in our Democracy to "count." The frustration in not being able to influence the election in any way other than by manning phone banks targeting other states and by giving money. I would like to feel like my persuasion of undecideds I know (or even those who normally are on the other side) had an impact. I would like to be able to go door to door and feel like it mattered. I would like it if issues important to partisans in my state mattered in national politics. I would like in general to not feel ignored.

    I mean, Jonathan, you periodically call for greater public participation in democratic life. Unfortunately, most of the ways you suggest to get involved are utterly worthless if you are a committed partisan living in an unbalanced district controlled by the other side.

    Do you think that lobbying my representatives is going to have much effect if I am a liberal in an area represented by a tea party member of congress? How about if I am a tea partier in Pelosi's district? That sort of frustration is tolerable at the local level. A lot of times it is possible to move to a friendlier district. At the state level it feels bad to not be able to influence the state wide races, but it feels much worse to not be able to influence national politics.

  14. Yes it sucks being a voter in the minority party in a state with lopsided partisan distribution like me, a Democrat, in Georgia. But your vote always counts. If the majority party's voters don't turn out and yours does or if large numbers of independents go your way, then you can still affect the outcome and be on the winning side. But even when that's not the case, I still find value in voting as a means of self-expression and a method of participating in the political process. Voting is about more than just being able to be the one vote that determines who wins or loses an office.

    Would we better off electing a President by some other means than the electoral college? Absolutely. Since America developed political parties in the early 1800s, the only time the electoral college has been truly relevant is when it has gone against the popular vote and resulted in corruption and controversy. It should be junked.

  15. The most pernicious thing about this sentiment is the unstated assumption that the only vote you cast that matters is for president. If you want to have a real impact on people's lives you have to look at the down ballot races. In my town (Houston, Texas), Obama being on the ballot meant that we were able to get rid of a whole bunch of real nasty Republican judges and replace them with Democrats who were, at the very least, reasonable people. Granted, all of the Dems lost in 2010, but I expect that to turn, more or less, permanently in 2012. Having that success in 2008 was very important to the party.

    And sure, everybody ignores Texas now, but just wait. At some point, probably by 2020 but certainly by 2024, Texas will be come a battleground state. The demographics demand it. The median age for Hispanic citizens in Texas is 18. The median age for non-Hispanic whites and blacks is 40.

  16. While it's certainly true that a single voter in unlikely to have much of an impact no matter what state they live in, the electoral college certainly tends to magnify the importance of particular groups of people. White rural voters have a much greater influence on electoral outcomes than they would otherwise, and African-American voters considerably less.

  17. I'm not seeing how you come to that conclusion. The electoral college does nothing to "particular groups of people".

    I like the EC because it forces candidates to run a truly national campaign, and affect a truly national strategy, in the only national election we hold. You have to walk into a collection of battleground states, and fight it out.

    I think that if we wanted to bring the people closer to national politics, it'd be a good idea to expand the US House. Congresscritters represent nearly 3/4M people as of now, I believe, something like 20 times more than at the founding.

    I'm not advocating 8,000 congressmen, but I'd rather that than only 435. I think it'd sharpen political debate, as folks would have to really communicate with that small group of voters, rather than hiring campaign hustlers to work the system on the larger mass.

    If a guy makes one mistake... he's out. If his party made a bad mistake, they'd be swept out. More volatility, and a solution to this stagnation and "era of incumbency" we've been in for 60 years or so (last November's blowout notwithstanding).

    So hey, fire 7,500 congressional staffers, and elect 7,500 new congressmen.


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