Voter Participation

Make Your State Matter

Because the presidential selection system currently consists of independent simultaneous statewide votes, state politicians in a single state logically conclude their actions will have little effect on the presidential election’s outcome in other states. 

Republican legislators in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin can act against the apparent desire of the majority of voters in last month’s election without worrying about the effect on their party’s ability to win a national popular vote — because no such vote ever matters. 

But things would be different if some states awarded some electors to the national vote winner. Then state officials in both parties (for the first time in American history) would have a ballot-based reason to be concerned about the reaction to their conduct from fellow Americans across the whole country. Anti-democratic moves by either party in any state might shift public opinion against that party in other states. Notorious bad actions by either party even in a single state then might cost the party a national popular vote majority and as a result lose the presidency. 

The anachronistic notion that what happens in a single state stays in that state would be eradicated. If the national popular vote mattered then the actions of officials in a single state might be subjected to meaningful judgment in the court of national public opinion. 

Not Good, Part 2

Out of the total eligible voting population in 2016, 40.9% did not vote. That amounted to 93.9 million people. They did not have better things to do. They realized that the current presidential selection system either makes their votes irrelevant or makes other people's votes much more significant. The nearly 100 million no-shows were not dumb or lazy or unworthy of voting. They realized that the campaigns made little or no effort to get their vote.

Making Media Matter

Commenting about direct election of the president in 1974, political scientist Charles Press wrote that "a most important effect of a straight out popular vote system will be an increased influence of the national media." 

If the national media is composed of the news-related cable channels and network television, they have little influence on the presidential elections of this century. Newspapers have even less.

If the national popular vote count determined the president, then more advertising would go to these outlets. In this sense national TV would have increased influence. Currently the networks get almost no presidential campaign ad money. It goes almost entirely to local broadcasters in a few swing states.

A national vote that mattered would cause local newspapers to make more money, potentially a lot more.

But would Fox News and MSNBC have bigger audiences? I doubt it. Would their commentators be more influential? Nope. Would they have editorials? Not likely.

Campaigns would use social media to reach every voter in the country. They would not spend money on broadcast or cable ads in big cities; too expensive. They would pump up ads on local broadcast in all states, local newspapers and radio too.

NYT, WaPo, and WSJ would have to spend more money figuring out what moved voters in every state. They probably would get more subscribers. Local newspapers would surely sell more copies. Interest in local elections would go up. But social media would provide the primary avenue to voters everywhere. 

National Election Good for Increasing Optionality in Candidates

In 1974, Charles Press argued in 68 American Political Science Review 1756-58 that choosing the president by total national popular vote would "encourage a further nationalizing of American politics."  What he meant was that big city bosses and state leaders would lose influence over the nomination, and "Under [this] reform, you will be able to recruit your presidential candidates from South Dakota and Arizona without apology."  

Presumably he meant that each of the two parties owed the country a big "sorry" for the Goldwater and McGovern nominations but that a national vote might lead to candidates being chosen from small states.

Looking back at his point these many years later, it seems that "nationalizing" actually means that nominees would be less likely to come from a big state where they have a robust financial donor base. That seems good.

Primary Voting

In the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s both parties adopted nominating systems that allocate delegates according to population in large part but not exclusively. Famously or notoriously they also created super-delegates, composed mostly of elected officials, who are thought to be likely to choose the candidate who seems ideal at the end of the long primary season. Presumably early voters or poorly informed voters in some states might have erred in the process. 

This anti-democratic measure is under attack. Primary voters in both parties want to choose directly the nominee.

It follows that the same voters, by far the most likely to vote in the general, also support the notion that the popular vote should directly choose the president in the general election.

If the nominee needed to win the national popular vote to win the general election, it seems likely that the nominating process would become more democratic, and the number of super-delegates would diminish. It would make sense for any national party to use the nominating process as a test run to determine vote getting capability in every state. More than that, the vote getting would try out themes, policy positions, and arguments in advance of the general election. In short, the whole process from soup to nuts would probably become more democratic with a little "d." 

How Big Turnout Could Be

If every voter in every state mattered, and if it followed that at least voter turnout in non-battleground states in 2016 matched turn-out in battleground states, then the non-battleground state turnout would rise by at least 16.3%. That could be close to 20 million more votes in 2020. 

But in fact if both campaigns competed to win every vote from every eligible voter in the country, they would use digital marketing, TV advertising, reinvigorated local party structures, appeals on nationally broadcast shows, newspaper ads, door knocking, and phone calls (1) to increase registration, (2) increase participation, (3) encourage people to think of joining with like-minded members of the same church, cause-related group, fellow high school graduates, family and friends -- regardless of domicile -- and voting together for the candidate of their choice. Voting would be a sport of many teams. Participation could approach registration levels, adding perhaps 50 to 70 million more voters to the process of picking the president. Everyone would have to acknowledge that the president really represented the people's choice.

When Every Vote Does Matter

In state-level congressional elections, and in the elections of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives — in almost every election in America — every single vote counts and has the potential to be the one that's decisive.

Just see what happened this year in Kentucky:

Why should the way we elect the president be any different?

Why Votes May Not Matter

There are two reasons why many votes for president do not matter. First, in all states except Maine and Nebraska, the state appoints as electors only the slate chosen by the party of the candidate that gets a bare plurality. This is the "unit" or "winner-take-all" rule. It is NOT in the Constitution. It has the effect of subjugating the minority in any state to the will of the majority. For example, it has the effect of causing Republican members of the Church of Latter-day Saints in California, Oregon and Washington to send no electors of their preference to the Electoral College. In short, the "unit" rule causes all votes for the runner-up candidate to be thrown away before they are ever tallied in a national count or before the Electoral College convenes to choose a president.

So voters who know they aren't going to be able to compose a plurality, like Republicans in California since 1992, have no good reason to vote for president. It's amazing so many do vote anyhow. 

Second, a bare plurality of voters in a state triggers the "unit" or "winner-take-all" rule. Every extra vote beyond the one that makes a plurality need never be cast. These extra or surplus votes might as well never be voted. So why should a hard-working person take time off to add unnecessarily to a pile of votes for president? Clinton won California by more than 4 million votes. Maybe another million didn't bother to vote because the surplus didn't matter.

If Republicans and Democrats in California did not vote because runner-up votes and surplus votes don't matter, then do we know what the vote in California would look like if the national popular vote chose the president -- if every vote counted?

It's a Simple Question

Americans do vote when they know their votes will count (see WSJ In Congressional and gubernatorial races, all votes matter and count equally. What if our presidential electoral system worked the same way? 

And why shouldn't it?

What Happens When Texas Votes

According to POLITICO, “Early voters in three states — Texas, Nevada and Arizona — have already surpassed total turnout in the last midterm election.” The outlet reported at 6:42 EST that over 36 million people have already voted.

In Texas, the race between Senator Ted Cruz (Rep.) and upstart candidate Beto O’Rourke (Dem.) has been billed as one of the closest races in years in a state that traditionally goes Republican by double digits.

The turn-out in Texas is largely due to both candidates strenuously vying to get out the vote as the incumbent Cruz warned supporters that O’Rourke posed a serious threat to his seat. Texas earned the distinction of coming in “dead last” in turn-out in the 2016 presidential election, reported the Houston Chronicle in September 2018, echoing the findings of the Washington Post that Texas and Washington, D.C. tied for last place in the nation.

Yet the Lone Star State has already shown tremendous turnout in the early vote, bolstering the national total that is already breaking records. It should come as no surprise since the Cruz-O’Rourke U.S. Senate race has been hotly contested and fueled national attention. Both candidates agree that every single vote will make a difference—Mr. Cruz implored his supporters to each bring five other people to the polls to vote for him.

If our presidential elections were also decided by the sum total of all votes, in the same way that all other elections for higher office work, could we expect a similar turn of events?

Texas may not be the only state with an ace or two up its sleeves.

The Great Blunder

In his review of Allan Lichtman’s The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present (Harvard: 2018), James Morone wrote in the New York Times September 12, 2018, that this “important book emphasizes the Founders’ great blunder: They failed to enshrine a right to vote in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.” As a result, Morone reports and Lichtman documents, “Each party gropes for advantage by fiddling with the franchise.”

Lichtman lists the “vital reforms” – he includes abolition of the electoral college, automatic voter registration, national election standards, less partisan voting districts. Morone adds limiting the power of the judiciary to strike down laws and proportional representation for congressional elections.

Neither Lichtman nor Morone, as far as I can tell, points out that the single biggest limitation on the right to vote is that neither party seeks the votes of more than 80% of the eligible populace when it comes to the choice of president. Either the Red or the Blue team concedes to the other a victory in at least 40 states. The unit or winner-take-all rule then allocates all electors to the party that won a plurality in a state basically simply by having its nominee appear on the ballot. This system plainly communicates to most people in the country that their vote does not matter in the choice of the most important political figure on the planet.

This message then discourages would-be voters from showing up. That in turn means that less “fiddling” is required to alter the outcomes of down-ballot races. A huge increase in turn-out everywhere in the country would make fairly small-scale shenanigans less impactful and as a result would minimize their occurrence. Certainly at the least, the “fiddling” would more often be drowned out by the clamor of millions more voting for president in every state, if only states would allocate their electors to the winner of the national vote instead of the winner of the state vote.

How To Defend Democracy

In How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago, 2018), political scientist Tom Ginsburg and law professor Aziz Huq examine the constitutional mechanisms that populist leaders have universally exploited to undermine democracies. The authors unearth the structural causes of atrophying constitutional democracies using case studies from around the globe. Many recent books have sounded the alarm by decrying the growth of anti-democratic movements globally and, potentially, within the United States. Ginsburg and Huq go further: not only do they explicate the many causes of democratic decline, but they go on to propose serious structural reforms and improvements upon existing constitutional safeguards.

 How to Save a Constitutional Democracy also serves as a stern reminder that the United States may not be immune to such threats. On October 28th Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy elected neo-fascist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. For anyone concerned with the rising threat of autocracy abroad, a “how-to” volume on defending democracy is both timely and essential.

 As this blog noted in its coverage of the backslide toward authoritarianism in Poland, one democratic safeguard is paramount among many: all constitutional democracies, including the United States, should conduct elections in a way that all votes matter. The U.S. Elections Project’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election found that “147 million voters, two-thirds of the electorate, were relegated to the sidelines” because of the nearly ubiquitous winner-take-all system practiced by the states.

If the profound imbalance in presidential voting power is allowed to continue, citizens will increasingly lose faith in the system, vote less, and the foundations of our democracy itself will weaken. After all, a constitutional democracy is only as strong as the participation of the People, entrusted to preserve equality through self-governance.


Despite reports of voter enthusiasm at record highs in anticipation of closely contested midterm elections, the Washington Post reports that many eligible voters will nevertheless decline to vote on November 6th.

Would Americans vote more often in general if their votes for president were guaranteed to matter? Such would be the case if the president were elected by a national popular vote. Research suggests that voting may indeed be “habit forming”, so if more Americans voted in presidential elections, turnout in the midterms would likely follow suit.

Turnout Surge in Primaries Indicates 2018 Midterms Will Be Highly Contested

Americans are more aware than ever that their participation in elections is essential to maintaining a healthy government that is accountable and responsive to their voices. Nearly a fifth (19.6%) of registered voters – about 37 million – cast ballots in House primary elections, according to the Pew Research Center. The resurgence in primary voting validates the polls finding that voter enthusiasm is at a record high, just four years after the midterm elections saw the worst turnout since 1942.

We know that Americans do vote when they feel that their vote matters. How many millions more of Americans would vote if we had a national popular vote for president by 2020?

How to Boost Turnout? Create the Proper Incentives for All Parties

At this link you’ll see an article explaining the obstacles states create for voting—or, you could say, the steps the states establish to guarantee that voters are legitimate. But the article misses the main point. Because the presidential selection system takes for granted more than 80% of all voters neither major party has adequate incentive to smooth the path for people to vote. If the major party candidates had to compete to win the national popular vote, then they would each battle to reduce barriers for their likely voters to get to the polls. Each party would still insist that the opposing party not be able to perpetrate voter fraud. Yet, while still insisting on fair practices, each major party would make a concerted effort to increase turnout as much as possible on Election Day. They would have every incentive to boost turnout in every state by reducing unnecessary structural obstacles.

Pew: "Voter Enthusiasm at Record High in Nationalized Midterm Environment"

According to Pew, “voter enthusiasm is relatively high among voters in both parties:”

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