When Your Vote Counts

Photo by Theresa Thompson [CC BY 2.0]
"The value of one's vote should not depend on the color of one's skin." I'm sure we could find people who would disagree with this statement if we looked under some rocks, but I think that most people would agree with it. I suspect that most people would also agree that the value of one's vote should not depend on one's gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. So why are those of us in the United States so willing to tolerate a system where the value of one's vote depends so heavily on where one lives?

Suppose that you are politically conservative and live in a small town where most of your neighbors are also politically conservative. The state in which your small and mostly conservative town is located in a blue state in which most residents vote for liberal Democrats. Let's take a look at when your vote counts and when it does not.

At the local level, your vote certainly counts. Although not all of your neighbors are conservative to the same degree or have the same views on which conservative candidates best represent them, it is safe to say that virtually all your local officials that hold elected office (e.g., your town's mayor) will be conservative Republicans. You are likely to be satisfied with this, and it is easy to see that your vote counts every bit as much as that of any of your neighbors.

Now let's move to the federal level. Assuming that your Congressional districts have not been overly gerrymandered in ways that seriously distort their composition, we will probably see something similar when it comes to your district's representative in the House. Even though you live in a blue state, your district reliably sends conservative Republicans to the House. Again, your vote counts, and you are likely to be pleased with those elected. So far, so good.

When we move to the U.S. Senate, things change. Senators are elected on a state-wide basis. Since your state is blue, your Senators (and your Governor) are probably going to be Democrats who are much less conservative than you'd like. Your state has a few cities that are much larger than the town in which you live. They tend to be far more liberal and since they have far greater numbers of voters, that means more liberal voters deciding your Senate races. In the primary elections, your vote clearly counts in helping to determine which Republican candidate for Senate will compete in the general election. And while your vote still counts in the general election, you and your fellow conservative voters are simply outnumbered. You probably aren't thrilled with the outcome of many of these elections, but it is hard to argue that they are unfair. You live in a state where most voters vote for Democratic candidates, and it makes sense that this would be reflected in statewide elections. Thus, you are likely to end up with Democratic Senators and a Democratic Governor.

Sadly, much of what we just said about your vote counting in these cases goes out the window when we move to presidential elections. Your vote counts in the presidential primary, but it is tough to argue that it counts in the general election thanks to the electoral college and system of state-by-state voting. You might be tempted to think that your vote doesn't count because you are a Republican living in a blue state that is going to vote for the Democratic candidate no matter what. You are right but only partially so. I'd suggest that nobody living in your state, including the Democrats, fares much better. That is to say, their votes don't count either.

Votes from your state don't count because you don't live in a swing state. Those of us who live in reliably blue states or reliably red states do not get to influence the outcomes of our general elections for the presidency. Our states are not up-for-grabs, as the outcome is basically predetermined. Only swing-state voters really get to influence the outcome of these elections. I have to think that this is one of the reasons so many people do not bother to vote.

You can certainly argue that blue states (or red states) can become swing states over time and that this should keep people voting no matter where they live. I wouldn't disagree with you. I once lived in a red state that gradually became a swing state and then a somewhat blue state. It can happen. Still, I don't see why where you live should have any bearing on the worth of your vote. As far as I am concerned, every vote should count equally regardless of where one lives.

I suppose the good news is that your vote does count most of the time. It counts in your local elections, state elections, Congressional elections (that haven't been thoroughly screwed through gerrymandering), and presidential primary elections. We should all vote in these elections no matter where we live. I think it is unfortunate that we are now in a situation where voters in a handful of swing states determine the outcome of our presidential elections and that their votes count far more than ours do. I'm not optimistic about that changing anytime soon. In the meantime, I suppose those who want to have a voice in presidential politics should give serious consideration to moving to a swing state.