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Safe States Count!

Your Humble Blogger is, reflexively, a defender of the current electoral system. I would guess that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu are not. Either they would prefer direct election of Our Only President, or they feel that the election cycle is too long or too expensive or too this or too that. Yes, there are problems—primarily, in my view, the choice of individual electors to ritually cast the actual ballots for the states—but on the whole, I think we have a pretty damned good system for the country we actually live in. So my irritation with those who deride the American system may be over the top. Bear with me.

One thing that comes up a lot is the idea that it’s unfair (for some definition of unfair) that the election will be decided by a handful of voters in Ohio and Virginia. One version of this is the wonderful Jon Carroll, who in a column called California - too blue to matter said:

So if you’re a Californian and you vote for Obama, big deal; your vote has already been registered, accounted for and then discounted. If you’re a Californian and you vote for Romney, your vote has, by contrast, already been registered, accounted for and then discounted.

The general tenor of this (and many others—I don’t mean to single out Jon Carroll, but he writes it well, and I could easily find the column) is that it stinks to be in a blue state or a safe state generally. The implication is that nobody cares what you think. This is wildly, egregiously, epically wrong.

How wrong is it? Imagine that Willard “Mitte” Romney were to win California’s votes. Election over, right? There is no way that Our Only President wins re-election without winning California. California is absolutely indispensible. It’s a fucking bedrock.

I live in Connecticut—Connecticut votes for Poppy Bush in 1988 and Poppy Bush becomes President of the United States of America. If Connecticut votes for Willard “Mitte” Romney in 2012, then Willard “Mitte” Romney becomes President of the United States of America. Is there any question about that? There is not. I tell you this: no pundit anywhere has published their prediction of the electoral map that has Our Only President winning the election without winning the state of Connecticut. Our votes are so fundamentally valuable to the re-election campaign that nobody anywhere is even considering how he can go about winning without them. He can win without Ohio, he can win without Colorado, he can with without New Mexico, he can win without New Hampshire—but if he can’t win Connecticut, he can’t win. Period.

And if you are in the Other Party in Mississippi or Georgia? Same deal: if your guy loses your state, he loses the country. That’s how important you are.

Now, people are going to say, sure, but there is no way that Georgia’s electoral votes are going to go to Our Only President, or that my own Connecticut will go for Willard “Mitte” Romney. And that’s true—except that it isn’t, of course, true at all. Connecticut went for the victorious Republican in 1988, as I said up there, and Georgia for the victorious Democrat in 1992. Remember 1984? Or 1972? Republican candidates have lost Arkansas three times out of the last nine—and lost the election each time. New York has voted for a victorious Republican three out of the last nine elections, but a Democrat has not won without New York for a generation. So if Our Only President was going to sail to easy victory or plummet to abject defeat, then those safe states wouldn’t be safe at all.

Still. Assume that they are safe, because in short-term practical terms they are safe for 2012. What does that mean about Connecticut’s electoral power? It means that no-one unacceptable to Connecticut Democrats can be the nominee of our Party. When Jon Carroll says that the votes of Californian Democrats have already been registered, it’s true, and that’s a profoundly powerful thing. California Democrats are so freaking powerful that their preferences are taken into account even before the primary campaigns begin. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That’s a big deal. That’s not a discounted vote, that’s a vote with one hell of a multiplier.

Now, if you are working for a campaign, sure, you want to use your resources where they will do the most good, and since Connecticut and Arkansas are already baked into the proverbial, we are further away from the nearest field office and may not get so many telephone calls. But the money isn’t being spent where the votes are the most important, they are being spent where the votes are the hardest to predict. And frankly, while those unpredictable votes will be the ones in the balance on November 6, they will not be the ones anyone will be paying the most attention to on November 7, or on January 20, or over the next years.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm not sure if this is the same thing you're talking about, but one thing is that one might feel as an individual voter that one's vote is much more insignificant in a safe state than a close state. The total aggregated votes of my state count plenty, but my personal vote is not at all likely to have anything to do with the outcome of the election. Whereas people in OH and VA, their individual votes are hugely important, at least relative to mine. So it's not that it's unfair to my state that their state is up for grabs, but rather that it's unfair to me that their individual votes are going to determine who wins, and my individual vote isn't.

So this guy is complaining because his state isn't being bombarded non-stop with Presidential campaign advertising??

More seriously, I agree with you that safe states are important, but the votes cast for a minority-party candidate in a state with a safe majority for another party's candidate don't register meaningfully, and I think it is reasonable to argue that those citizens have proportionately much less influence over presidential candidates than either the majority-party voters in safe states or the voters of either party in a swing state. Mitt Romney has no motive to take positions because they will fire up California Republicans in particular, and Barack Obama has no strategic reason to take positions that will fire up Mississippi Democrats. If we are concerned about Presidential vote equity, that's the case to address.

However, regional disenfranchisement might be just as severe in a popular vote system, in which candidates could succeed by running up the score in the region where their bases dominate. Would representative democracy be better served if Obama were campaigning in California to maximize turnout there while Romney was campaigning in Texas for the same reason, instead of having them both campaigning in Ohio? I'm not sure, and maybe a national popular vote not have the effect I am proposing here. It would surely, however, make campaigning for President even more expensive (or, rather, it would give even more advantage to the candidate who could come closer to advertising on a genuinely national basis). Of course, it's easy to defend the electoral college system when it might well be my guy who wins on electoral votes but not on the popular vote because racism runs up the score in the Deep South popular vote . . . If the shoe were on the other foot, I might have more reservations about the electoral college than I do today.

I disagree, though, with your concluding point. Money is being spent where the outcome is hardest to predict, not were the votes are harder to predict. I think the polls are as accurate for Ohio as they are for Vermont. Now, it is true that micro-campaigning may be finding and targeting actual undecided voters in the swing states, but it's not their personal unpredictability that makes those undecideds attractive: it's their state of residence. The percentage of undecided voters in California is probably as high as it is in Ohio, but they won't tip the balance in the California vote.

Here's the question I want as many people as possible to answer yes to: Should I bother to actually go vote this year?

I don't want them to answer yes because it's a close race -- I don't want there to be more than a handful of people who want to vote for this arrogantly entitled sociopath who damaged my state and who destroyed Lisa's company and who would happily deride and steal from 99% of the country and then posthumously pretend to convert them into people he cared about.

I want the margin of victory to matter. I want the scope and swell of victory to matter. I want people to feel their views were represented by candidates and that their views continue to be respected by those who take and hold office, and to feel that their votes offer them an opportunity to express those views.

The electoral college is not the real obstacle to people feeling that they should bother to go vote. The real obstacles are the sycophantic and ratings-driven media coverage, crappy candidates propped up by big money, and the lack of instant run-off voting (or some comparable system for drastically improving the sense that your vote can fairly represent your views).

It's a small comfort to know that there may have been candidates somewhere who thought deeply about whether they should run given the presidential politics of Massachusetts, but it doesn't convince me to go vote. I'll vote anyway, because of other ballot races and because the national popular vote will be reported and because I place a high value on civic participation. But I wish it felt more useful.

Some points—while irilyth is somewhat of a special case, the question of "fairness" is generally answered as it would be closer if many more people in your state voted for the wrong guy; would you prefer that? And with probably six million votes in Ohio, the guy looking for an excuse that his vote won't be the one to "make a difference" has plenty. If "making a difference" is defined as the difference between Candidate A and Candidate B winning office, then anyone living in a good-sized town can decide not to bother to vote, because his one vote won't "make a difference" among the tens of thousands of other votes. As long as we think about elections as being about each individual vote, then nobody "makes a difference".

I go back to the two things I so often repeat. One is that voting is not simply an individual act, but something we do together. It is individual, surely, and one of the beauties of the vote is that your vote counts exactly the same as mine, and exactly the same as the richest banker or the poorest teacher. The most powerful man in the world, Barack Obama, has one vote; my mother has one vote. So yes, the individuality of the vote is there. But another equally beautiful thing about the vote is that we do it together, and that one vote is like one drop of water, but our votes together can turn that mill. And as long as we think of ourselves as drops of water in that mighty ocean and as individual sparks of the divine flame, then we'll be all right.

The second thing is that voting is only the entry point into democratic participation. Democracy is not about Election Day any more than Judaism is about Yom Kippur. Elections are our greatest ritual, but democracy goes on all year long. Which is why, even in the case of the red voter in the blue state, even if you feel that the candidates are rotten and your vote won't "send a message" about your preferred policy, you should still vote. Don't vote only because it's useful, and don't vote only because it's beautiful—it's both of those things, in various ways, but vote because it really is the least you can do.


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