Here’s the thing – young voters (let’s say 39 and under) hear that they’re supposed to vote, and then for whatever reason, they don’t. Maybe the weather was bad that day or maybe they got stuck in traffic.
These are real reasons people have given me as to why they didn’t vote at one point or another. Of course, there are more serious voter concerns that accompany those trivial ones – doubt surrounding whether or not their vote matters, concern over voter fraud, frustrations over gerrymandering, disliking either candidate, disillusionment with the overall process, etc.
The United States is run as a representative government, having been founded on the principles of democracy in an effort to prevent one person or party from ever obtaining too much power or influence, like in a monarchy or dictatorship. A system of checks and balances was put in place to divide up the governing responsibilities between three independent branches of government, and states were also given governance over certain rights.
On a basic level, this sounds great, but as many of us know, the system doesn’t work as simply as one vote per person.
The history of our nation has been fraught with issues surrounding who gets to vote and when. To this day, various groups have been lobbying, protesting, and fighting for their right to be represented in their government. On top of that, a convoluted voter registration process, disagreements over which forms of identification are acceptable on voting day, and districts that are deliberately drawn to water down votes from certain demographics (a practice known as “gerrymandering,” which is a whole other issue on its own) continue to act as hurdles against a well-represented voting base.
Without getting too much into the politics of this, there are many reasons as to why this is happening. As I’m sure you can probably deduce, it’s because someone somewhere is benefitting from discouraging or disallowing certain demographics from voting.
How Voting Works
Believe it or not, our public school systems don’t always go over how the voting process actually works. Or, if they do, apparently a lot of us weren’t paying attention. Fair warning – the system itself could be seen as a voter deterrent, but the more you know…
Let’s start somewhere in the middle. After a series of primaries and caucuses, a presidential nominee is chosen for each party. The two candidates then face off in the general election in November and a president is chosen.
Kind of. Meet the electoral college.
As we know, there are two separate tallies in a presidential election – the popular vote, where the people cast individual ballots, and the electoral vote, where the electors cast theirs.
There are 538 electors, based on 435 representatives, 100 senators, and 3 electors from Washington D.C. 538 divided by two is 269, so if a presidential candidate wins 270 electorate votes, they win the election. That’s why you’ll often hear of presidential elections referred to as “the race to 270.”
By design, just because a candidate wins the popular vote, they do not necessarily win the election. It’s a matter of distribution, and it’s also one of the reasons why many people feel as if their vote doesn’t count.
The Electoral College
The electoral college was established at the very beginning of our nation. The Founding Fathers, specifically Alexander Hamilton (who was always my favorite Founding Father, even before Lin-Manuel Miranda made him cool), designed a system where the people would basically be protected from themselves. Essentially deeming the American people unfit (either ill-informed or generally lacking good judgment) to choose their own representation in government, the electoral college was created as part of a system of checks and balances.
An accompanying and more practical, logistical explanation for the electoral college is that back in the 1780s, information traveled much slower than it does now. It was easier and faster to send a few representatives from each region to cast a vote on behalf of the populace with the most up-to-date information than it was to count individual votes.
Here’s how it works. The people vote with their state and depending on the outcome, the entire state would be awarded to one candidate. With that, the candidate wins all of that state’s electoral votes. It’s an all-or-nothing situation. For example, if the Republican candidate wins the popular vote in the state of Texas, then that candidate is awarded all 38 electoral votes.
In other words, the electors are supposed to vote in concurrence with the popular vote. However, they’re not obligated to. For example, in 2016, two electors from Texas broke with the state and cast votes for the Democratic candidate.
Those electors may have been criticized for their actions, but again, there are two ways of looking at the situation. Many people believe that the electors should honor the wishes of the people within the state and cast their votes accordingly, regardless of their personal beliefs. Electors who break from this are often referred to as “faithless electors.” However, the two Texas electors who refused to vote for Trump were actually exemplifying the function of the electoral college. That’s why this system was created in the first place – it protects the voters from the consequences of their own actions by having people in place who, hopefully and presumably, know better than we do.
2016 was an interesting election year, to say the absolute least. The official electoral vote is held after the general election, so there was talk of the electors potentially “saving” the nation from a President Trump. Of course, that isn’t what happened.
Either way, that seems like a lot of power awarded to people who aren’t really chosen by the people. Most electors are unknown to the public and are either elected or appointed within each party within each state. Rules for determining electors vary by state.
The last two Republican presidents did not win both the popular and electoral votes. Usually, this is a rare occurrence, having only ever happened five times in our nation’s history. For instance, George W. Bush barely won the presidency in 2000 with 271 electoral votes, even though Al Gore won the popular vote. Thanks a lot, Florida.
There are critics on both sides of this. Pro-electoral college rhetoric harps on the fact that candidates like W. Bush and Trump were simply more strategic when it came to playing the electoral college game, which is a fair assessment. However, critics on the other side argue that this disparity, especially twice in a row, is a problem because the person awarded the presidency is not the favorite of the actual American people. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that our representative government isn’t actually representing the wants of, at least, the voting citizens.
Before the big elections, though, presidential nominees are chosen during the primary process, in which delegates from each party cast votes supposedly in line with the candidate the voters chose. In this process, delegates act similarly to electors. Each party’s rules for choosing delegates vary, but they’re essentially appointed. They could be anyone.
On the Democratic side, they have superdelegates whose votes essentially count for more than the other delegates’. It’s a controversial institution, but it was enacted for the same reason the electoral college was – to serve as a guarantee that the strongest candidate wins the nomination. In 2016’s presidential race, many Democrats felt as though the nomination was rigged against the very popular Bernie Sanders, with the superdelegates favoring Hillary Clinton instead.
There is some talk of eliminating the superdelegate program amongst the Democratic party, presumably over the backlash the party received after Clinton was named the presidential nominee over Sanders.
There is also talk of eliminating the electoral college. However, seeing as to how one party is clearly benefitting from it, that seems unlikely. Furthermore, eliminating the electoral college wouldn’t be in the best interest of smaller and less populated states.
The midterms happen every four years, two years before and after presidential elections. This way, if people don’t like the direction the president and Congress is running the country, they have the opportunity to turn the tide a bit.
In our current situation where we have all three branches of government controlled by the same party, the Democrats want to take back some voting power in Congress and the Republicans want to keep theirs. What we have now is a Congress in which Republican agendas are pushed through with little to no threat of opposition. Even in cases when Democrats do push back, the end result is often the same. Kudos to them for trying, though.
In congressional elections, there are no electors or delegates – your vote counts directly towards the end result, and arguably, these elections are more impactful on the day-to-day functions of your government than the presidential elections are.
Congress is where it’s at. The midterms should not be discounted or overlooked.
Common questions and concerns regarding voting:
Who are the delegates and electors and how are they chosen?
We don’t really know. They’re not all publicly known and the process for selecting them varies by state and party. This is the basis for a solid anti-electoral college argument.
How are the 538 electors distributed?
Alright, let’s do some math. We already know there are 538 electors available to be distributed between the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Notably awarded zero electors – U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico. Each region is given three electors from the get-go. This ensures that the smaller states or states with smaller populations still get adequate representation in government. So, 51 times three is 153. 538 minus 153 leaves 385 remaining electors to be distributed to each state by population according to the most recent census.
However, since some states based on population alone wouldn’t even have gotten their three, those electors are essentially taken from other states. As a result, you have highly populated states that are technically underserved in government and less populated states that are overrepresented. For example, the state of California, which already holds the most electors, would have about ten more than it currently has, whereas Wyoming currently has two more than it would.
Why are all these dead people voting?
Well, they’re not. The claims that President Trump has made about dead people voting were not based in evidence (surprised?) and have since been largely disproved. John Oliver lays it out here, and here’s a report from the Washington Post addressing the issue.
What about voter fraud?
Again, voter fraud can happen, but there hasn’t been any real evidence found supporting these claims. Check out this report from PBS NewsHour for more insight.
Does my vote even count?
In the midterm elections? YES. Yes. Omg yes.
“My state is already predominantly _____________.”
If your state is already heavily leaning left or right, then your vote can either help it stay that way or help sway it in the other direction. While it may not feel like your one vote is making much of a difference this time around, keep in mind that political shifts are often gradual and occur over the course of several elections. You can’t just wait for everyone else in your state to switch before you head to the polls. Otherwise, you’ll all just be waiting on each other indefinitely.
My district is heavily gerrymandered.
I get this one, trust me. I live in a pretty liberal (or at least mixed) suburb in southeast Houston, but my congressional district extends far out into east Texas, a place I wouldn’t even travel to. I can’t imagine I’d have anything in common with the residents of Jasper, Texas.
Anyway…still vote, for much of the same reasons that I mentioned in the previous issue. Maybe your vote will make a difference if enough people in your district get out there. Can’t hurt to try. Here’s some more information on gerrymandering.
I don’t like any of my candidates.
That’s fair. Voting for someone can be a psychological affair. In so doing, you’re basically telling yourself and others that you stand behind this person, including everything they stand for, everything they’ve ever said and did, and everything they ever will say and do. Of course, that’s not what it actually means, but that seems to be the perception.
Consider this, though. I wouldn’t normally advocate for voting straight-ticket on something unless that’s really how you feel, but looking at the way our government is set up, voting for your party is often better than not voting at all, even if you’re not a huge fan of your particular candidate. Especially in a midterm election, you’re essentially electing someone to vote for your party’s agenda in Congress. You don’t have to be a fan of every Democrat or Republican in Congress, but you can generally be sure that they’ll vote in line with your overall ideals and priorities.
So, why vote?
Because it’s literally the least you can do, and the very least is better than absolutely nothing. I realize that I’ve just given a lot of reasons to doubt the system, but even when it feels hopeless and when your options are less than ideal, there’s a bit of change you can possibly help to enact. Voting is just the first step. Where you go and what you do from that point is up to you.