In my post “Does Your Vote Count?” last week, I criticized voters in non-swing states who are discouraged from voting because they think their vote “doesn’t count.” Today, this Google+ post from Sergey Brin has been making the rounds. It’s mainly a criticism of partisanship, but he begins with this:
I must confess, I am dreading today’s elections.
Not because of who might win or lose.
Not because as a Californian, my vote for President will count 1/3 as much as an Alaskan (actually it won’t matter at all — I’m not in a swing state).
Now, I don’t actually think he’s making the same argument that I criticized, but I want to elaborate on why, because it’s an important difference.
First off, where does his 1/3 number come from? Alaska has 720,000 inhabitants and three electors, or one for every 240,000 citizens. California has a population of 37,700,000 and 55 electors, or one for every 685,000 Californians. 685/240 = (almost) 1/3. This happens because no state can have less than three electors (two Senators plus one representative) which gives low population states a lot more electors per capita.
Of course, Alaska isn’t a swing state either, so if Brin’s vote “doesn’t matter” for that reason, neither does the Alaskan’s. He’s really got two separate complaints about the Electoral College: first, that it gives too much power to small states, and second, that only the swing states really “count” in the electoral math. You could solve either of these problems without solving the other — the first (more or less) by cutting Alaska and other small states down to one or two electors, or the second by forcing every state to allocate their electors proportionally rather than winner-take-all. But eliminating the Electoral College entirely would solve both of them, and that seems like the most practical solution — I wrote here about how it might happen within the next few election cycles.
Anyway, here’s the point: Brin is not suggesting (I hope) that people shouldn’t vote because of these problems; he’s speaking in individual terms to make his complaint about the system more relatable. When you say “my vote doesn’t count because of how the electoral college works” (Brin) and “I’m not going to vote, because my vote doesn’t count” (the type of logic I was arguing against) you’re using the word count in two different senses. What it means for your vote to count on an individual level is not connected to its exact mathematical value, which even in a swing state is essentially zero anyway. Your vote should count to you because you feel you’re fulfilling a civic duty, exercising a valuable right, or (hopefully) both.
Does it sound like I’m splitting hairs? I’m just concerned that so many people seem to take these flaws in the system as a reason not to vote themselves, and I worry that comments like Brin’s could inadvertently feed into that. I agree with him about the unfairness of the electoral college system, but maybe election day isn’t the best time to have that discussion. If you’re not going to vote today because you live in a non-swing state, I hope you’ll read my original post and reconsider.