American voters may be told that “every vote counts,” but the actions of the candidates and the method of allocating votes tells a different story.
During the post-convention campaign circuit, both major party candidates focused their campaign visits and advertising on twelve states. Most of these events occurred in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, which together hosted 57% of candidate appearances and received 71% of campaign spending. These lop-sided campaign efforts resulted in over 52 million votes ignored in the 2016 election. The presidential candidates in 2016 only focused on battleground states that represent about 30% of eligible voters. The vast majority of Americans were not represented in these campaign efforts. And even within states that determined the election like Pennsylvania, only a small segment of voters would have their interests represented in policy decisions once either candidate won the presidency.
Both major party candidates campaigned this way because it makes sense under the current rules for electing presidents in nearly every state. The majority of states are already known to reliably vote for one party or another, so a presidential candidate who already expects to win in those states has no incentive to campaign for any extra votes in those states. A candidate only needs enough votes to win the most votes in a given state; once that plurality is achieved, all of that state’s electoral votes are awarded to the winning candidate. A Democratic candidate has no reason to worry about whether she wins New York by one million or two million votes, just like a Republican candidate has no reason to be concerned about the margin in a state like Texas.
On the flip side, a small number of swing states will essentially determine whether a candidate reaches the required 270 electoral votes to win. In 2016, only six states were decided by a margin of 2% or less. Among them, only three of those states were both populous enough and close enough to determine the winner of the presidency – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Each were won within a margin of 7/10 of a percentage point, and, combined, gave President Trump a total 46 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton zero. Thus, a 2.9 million vote lead in the popular vote nationally for Hillary Clinton was erased by fewer than 78,000 votes for President Trump across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In a state like Michigan, where Donald Trump won by 0.2% of the vote but was awarded 100 percent of the electoral votes, every vote really does count, and the candidates know it. But in the vast majority of states, this is not the case.
There is a way however to ensure every vote counts equally. Under a national popular vote system, candidates would need to compete for as many votes as possible, regardless of where the eligible voters live. Campaigns would have to cater to the interests of a wider variety of voters, and more voters who feel included in the political process will be motivated to cast their vote. A national popular vote would include a larger percentage of voters in elections, and would result in campaign policies that support the majority of constituents and Americans nationwide.