Like much of the country, I spent a good chunk of last week squinting between the TV screen and the calculator, trying to predict who the good people of Arizona, Michigan and a few other states were going to designate as our next president. As focused as I was on the two candidates, that focus has never been reciprocated. My opinion didn’t matter one whit to either campaign, nor did it have one iota of impact on the election. Nor, probably, did yours.
That’s because I live in a state that, like most states, might as well have skipped the election altogether and just handed all its electoral votes to whichever candidate we’ve known all year was going to end up getting them. Heck, Missouri’s state and local governments could have saved millions of dollars, and none of us would have had to wait in line.
Did anyone else who was watching the returns feel a simmering resentment every time some TV talking head used the phrase “battleground state”? Did anyone else think, Y’know, I’ve met people from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and they’re nice enough I guess, but what exactly makes them more qualified than I am to choose a president?
It’s often said that American politics has become a form of spectator sport. That’s especially true for the vast majority of Americans who don’t live in the half-dozen states that decide our presidential elections: We are mere spectators to democracy. That we humbly accept this every four years is bizarre.
The Electoral College is usually blamed for this situation, though as we’ve discussed in this space before, the greater culprit is the winner-take-all system by which most states designate their electors. In every state but Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who gets the most votes gets the state’s entire slate of electors, no matter how close the popular vote was. The second-place finisher gets zilch, effectively disenfranchising every state resident who voted for that person.
This is why presidential campaigns treat Florida voters like royalty while treating the rest of us like staff. Since most states’ voters are either overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat, both candidates can ignore those states, knowing in advance whether they’ll be getting everything or nothing, with no way to change that. Joe Biden or Donald Trump might in theory have appreciated my vote, but there was no reason for either of them to spend any time seeking it, since all 10 of Missouri’s electoral votes were pre-destined for Trump from the start. My opinion on the election (and, probably, yours) was about as relevant as my opinion on the Super Bowl. And had just as much impact on the outcome.
Were I to move to Florida, however, Biden and Trump both would suddenly have reason to woo my vote. That’s because Florida’s voting base is roughly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, giving both candidates a realistic chance to win the popular vote. Whoever does, even if it’s by a hair, gets all 29 of Florida’s electoral votes.
It’s a uniquely American dynamic: Only the states that are the most deeply divided within themselves gets any political love, from the campaigns or from the election-night pundits. This is how most of us end up watching elections as if we’re peering through a window into a party we weren’t invited to.
This isn’t just an issue of feeling left out. The mathematical fact is, the winner-take-all system renders most voters’ individual votes irrelevant. Once this sinks in, it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about voting. I might not have even bothered this time, except I wanted to make sure to add to Trump’s popular-vote loss, on the theory that a symbolic trouncing there would help deny credibility to his scheme — vile, un-American and announced in advance — to declare himself the winner no matter the outcome. (Adding to his humiliation was just a bonus.)
Winner-take-all is the reason why two presidents in the past two decades have been seated despite someone else getting more votes, and it’s the reason it came close to happening again last week. Every argument I’ve ever heard defending this outrageous situation has come from Republican partisans who, however they might dress it up, are ultimately arguing that they’re OK with democracy being undermined, as long as it benefits Republicans. Maybe it’s going to take the GOP being on the receiving end of that kind of injustice for America to finally come together and fix this.
What would fixing it entail? That’s another discussion, with a lot of competing ideas, but the upshot is this: “Battleground states” isn’t a concept that should exist in a democracy. (And, yes, conservatives, we are a democracy — in addition to being a republic.) If candidates had to win voters instead of states, every voter in every state would have a stake in the process. Voters in the small states that the Electoral College supposedly protects would stop being invisible. The millions and millions of Texas Democrats and California Republicans who go uncounted would count. We’d all be invited to the party.
Views from the editorial board, opinions from guest and national columnists plus the latest letters from our readers.