Today (and the past few weeks), millions are casting a ballot for President of the United States, and nearly as many will be asking one simple question: Does my vote count?
For many of us, the answer is probably, “No.” It’s not that our votes won’t be counted—in lieu of hanging chads, malfunctioning voting machines, and good old fashioned election fraud, our vote will tabulated and tallied in precincts across the country—but what we really want to know is, “Does my vote matter?”
Civics lessons across the country proudly push the mantra that every vote counts, that “one person, one vote” is the basis of a democratic society, but from New York to California, Texas to the Dakotas, nearly every state is already classified red or blue, its outcome a “foregone conclusion.” In the electoral college we seemingly have a voting process that is truly Orwellian, where some votes truly“are more equal than others.” (And I won’t even get into the issue of money in politics.)
Though he made some changes based on recent polls, a week ago Nate Silver’s 538 blog (published by the New York Times) classified only 9 states as “competitive”: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These are the “states that matter”, and even the candidates have no qualms about focusing their time and money in the swing states; in fact, according to fairvote.org, of the 252 campaign visits by the presidential and vice presidential candidates since the Democratic National Convention, 251 have taken place in one of these nine states, including 72 in Ohio alone. (The lone outlier was a stop by Congressman Ryan in Michigan.)
This sense of voter disenfranchisement isn’t anything new. While the swing states shift from election to election, many have probably lived their whole lives in states considered a “sure thing” for one political party or the other and felt like they really had no say in who was elected President.
However, examining the effect of the electoral college on the impact of one’s vote in relation to a person’s race leads one to discover a hidden world of voter disenfranchisement of people of color.
One obvious examination would be to look at the racial makeup of the “competitive” states. Based on the 2010 Census, there were approximately 237 million people in the United States 18 and over (the age necessary to vote), approximately 67.2% white. But the population of the 9 competitive states is approximately 71.9% white, a difference of nearly 5%—a significant difference, especially if the race ends up being as close as many predict it will be
However, looking at only these swing states unnecessarily skews the data. This is because, of the 110 electoral votes “in play” in these states, it is predicted President Obama would need only 33 (about a third) of them. So while these are the states in which candidates are still vying for individual votes to win electoral votes, these states will not decide the president in the normal sense of “receiving the greatest number” and thus brings about some mathematical ambiguity.
The true way to see the effect of the electoral college on people of color is to look at the electoral college on a national scale. As noted, the US 18 and over population is approximately 67.2% white; however, based on state populations in relation to their electoral college weight, the electoral college votes are distributed to a population that is the equivalent of 68.1% white. And while this may not seem like a significant difference, it is equivalent to adding 6.6 million whites age 18 and over to the population.
It is not simply the electoral college that cause the voices of people of color to be diluted in elections. Because most states have some form of voting restrictions for convicted felons (a population disproportionately made up of people of color), the number of people of color eligible to vote is reduced, increasing the distribution of white voters.
Also, some ambiguity comes into play because the census counts citizens and non-citizens (green card holds, those here on visas, undocumented residents) alike, with congressional districts and electoral college votes distributed not by the number of citizens but by the population. Thus, the voices of non-citizens—many who pay taxes—are repressed, again disproportionately affecting people of color living in this country.
There is much to be done in regards to election reform in this country to create a system where every vote bears the same weight and every citizen feels they are truly heard. Such reform includes the elimination of the current electoral college structure, a system that continues to disenfranchise millions of people every four years—whether they are aware of it or not.
Visit the National Popular Vote website to see one campaign to end the electoral college.