Voter participation in 2016 came down to which state you live in. But it shouldn’t. And we certainly can’t blame voters.
Simply put, votes for president matter a lot in some states and very little in others. Votes are obviously counted, and a winner determined in each state. The predicament is that all but a few states are already a lock for either Democrats or Republicans.
These states are “safe” – candidates do not need to advertise or even get-out-the-vote there to win. Think of Alabama (deep red) and Massachusetts (deep blue). According to Making Every Vote Count statistical calculations, four out of five people in America live in states the candidates make little to no effort to win. As a result, those 80 percent of Americans are less likely to vote: turnout in battleground states is about 16 percent higher than in safe states.
This is the sad result of our current electoral system, which grants candidates all or none of a state’s electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. As a result, most voters do not have an equal opportunity to influence the result of our presidential election. Any votes cast for the loser in a state are systematically discarded. On the other hand, winning a state by a landslide vote margin does not enhance a candidate’s overall chances of winning, since she or he will still receive the same number of electoral votes from the state regardless of the margin of victory. The winner-take-all system of awarding of electors to the Electoral College does a disservice to voters in the “safe states” by rendering their votes less important than those cast in close states, and almost inconsequential compared with the votes cast in the small number of states that end up deciding an election.
If all safe states had seen the same level of turnout that close states did in 2016, Claster Consulting (which does public opinion research) has estimated that they would have seen 16.3% higher turnout among eligible voters. On a national scale, that translates to more than 14.6 million more votes cast in 2016.
This suggests that if every state was a “battleground” like close states are currently, we would witness the most dramatic surge in voter turnout since the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, first codifying women's right to vote in the United States. A transition to the national popular vote would cause a sea change in American presidential politics, breathing new life into our elections in every state. As we’ve noted before, a national popular vote would require candidates to get voters to the polls in every state plus DC, instead of exclusively in the close states. It would incentivize candidates to campaign for and govern in the interests of the entire nation.
By supporting the habit of voting in presidential elections, we expect midterm elections to see a surge in participation as well as primaries (which currently suffer from very poor levels of participation).
In a society that increasingly operates independently of geographic constraints and boundaries, it is absurd that where people live has such an impact on whether their vote counts for president and whether they feel the need to vote.
Why should state lines decide how much our votes matter?
We can change the system in a way that empowers all voters and increases turnout across the country. States can allocate their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, which would immediately give every voter the same chance to impact the outcome of the election. If the vote of any individual mattered just as much as the vote of any other, then every person would have a compelling reason to vote. No single region’s voters would have outsized influence; no single region’s voters would have diminished influence.
We have the chance, through states’ constitutional powers, to fix the broken system we have for choosing presidents and demand our leaders accomplish one of the most dramatic expansions of voter participation and engagement in American history.