A paradox of our democratic system is that people obsess over the elections in which they have the least effect and ignore the ones where they have a greater chance of making a difference. That thought came up a lot this week after Rep. Justin Amash announced his third-party campaign for president.
One of the frequent objections that I saw is, “I like Amash but this election is too important to vote for him. I want to vote for [insert major party candidate name] to ensure [the other major party candidate] doesn’t win.”
There is a flaw in that logic, however. The problem is that your vote for president is almost worthless.
A presidential election is a two-stage election. In the first stage, it is essentially 50 separate state elections to determine electors. Following that election, the 538 electors vote to elect the president.
So, let’s think about it. A statewide election is when your vote is worth the least because of the large pool of voters. In the last presidential election, your vote would have been valued at somewhere between 1 in 13.2 million in California, the most populous state, and one in 250,000 in Wyoming, the most sparsely populated state. In neither state, would changing one vote – or even a few thousand votes - have made a difference.
In fact, in all but about five swing states, the outcome might as well be predetermined. Most states are tilted so heavily to one party or another that there is almost no chance that they will flip. This year, it looks as though Arizona, the perennial swing state of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will decide the election for the rest of the country.
So, you’re thinking, if I live in a swing state, my vote could make a difference. Probably not, thanks to the Electoral College, which further waters down your individual vote. This year’s presumed swing states have from 11 to 29 electoral votes, which represent from about two to five percent of the total electoral vote tally. The odds of your vote making a difference are not good, even if you live in a swing state, because of the small electoral delegations and because one person’s vote has never swung an entire state.
In 2016, one of the closest presidential elections in our history, 10 states had results that were within four percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the difference between Trump and Hillary was still in the tens of thousands of votes in most cases. The closest state, New Hampshire with a difference of 2,701 votes, went to Hillary so changing the outcome there would not have affected the Electoral College outcome.
Because of our two-stage system, it isn’t uncommon for elections to be close on a popular vote basis but one-sided in the Electoral College. In terms of popular vote, the closest presidential election was in 1880 when James Garfield defeated Winfield Scott Hancock by only 7,368 votes. However, Garfield won the Electoral College handily by a margin of 214-155.
The reverse is sometimes also true, as it was in 2016. In 1824, no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams as the new president.
Four years before Garfield’s victory, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by a 250,000 vote margin but still eked out an Electoral College victory by one vote. Even in that close election, it would have required changing hundreds of votes to flip any state, however. The closest state elections were Colorado, with a difference of 889 votes, and Florida, with a difference of 922.
Florida also figures prominently in one of the other closest presidential elections, the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. This election also came down to one state, Florida, which Bush won by 537 votes. The Supreme Court eventually stopped the recounts but subsequent studies show that Bush would have won anyway.
The bottom line here is that throughout American history, there has never been one presidential election that turned on one person’s vote. 2020 is unlikely to be the first.
My argument here is not against the Electoral College. I believe that the founders’ idea to add the second stage was an inspired plan to prevent populous states like California, New York, and Texas from deciding elections at the expense of the Wyomings and Rhode Islands of the country. Further, the 2000 election showed the benefit of containment. Imagine the Florida recount spread across 50 states rather than just one. My argument is simply that one person’s vote is not going to make a difference, particularly if you live in a state that doesn’t swing (and the majority of states are not cool and freewheeling like that).
From my own example, in Georgia, one vote for president was worth one out of more than 4 million votes cast in 2016. The difference between Trump and Hillary was more than 230,000 votes. One person voting their conscience would not swing the state. For that matter, 230,000 people voting their conscience probably wouldn’t swing the state because third party candidates often pull from both major parties.
But Dave, you say, that recent poll reported in the Atlanta Journal shows that Georgia may be a swing state this year. Shouldn’t you vote for a major party to make sure your preferred candidate wins?
My answer to that is two-fold. First, I don’t really have a preferred candidate among the two main candidates. I have never been a Trump supporter and the past four years have confirmed my doubts and fears about both his character and his ability to govern. Trump’s record on policy is decidedly mixed and, in my opinion, his positives are far outweighed by his negatives. Biden is of better character, but, as a conservative, I have trouble backing him because of his liberal platform.
Second, if Georgia is really in play this year, it likely means a Biden blowout. For public opinion to swing to the point where Biden can realistically hope to win deep-red Georgia, it would mean that the normal swing states have already swung to Biden, ensuring an Electoral College victory.
Bottom line: My vote still doesn’t matter.
Before I close, I do want to point out that voting is a sacred duty and when I say your vote won’t make a difference, that argument is specifically aimed at presidential elections. In senatorial and other statewide elections, the weight of your vote is similar to the first-stage, popular vote in your state presidential election. Because there is no Electoral College in these contests, your vote counts more than a vote for president.
Your vote is even more valuable in congressional and local elections both because there are fewer eligible voters and because fewer people who can vote in these elections actually do. This is especially true in years when there is no presidential election. As I said at the beginning, it’s a paradox.
Each congressional representative represents about 747,000 Americans and not all of these people are eligible to vote. That means that your vote for Congress carries far more weight than in most statewide elections. In my congressional district, only about 292,000 people voted in 2018. The numbers get more favorable as the jurisdictions get smaller. Some local elections are decided by one vote and several have ended in ties.
You should educate yourself on the issues and candidates and cast your vote, but don’t obsess over the presidential election where your vote has the least impact. Vote for president but also vote for candidates down the line where your vote really can make a difference.
It’s difficult to waste a presidential vote that is mathematically almost worthless to begin with. In my view, the real wasted vote is one cast for someone who you don’t believe would make a good president. If neither main party candidate meets your approval, cast your vote for the third-party candidate of your choice and let the two big parties know that you prefer “None of the Above.” If enough of us start rejecting both parties, they may start paying attention.
Originally published on The Resurgent