How Important Is Your Vote?

Sam Fulwood III explores whether forces beyond the casting of votes can actually determine who gets elected president of the United States.

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Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard to help identify voters in need of a state-government-issued ID card. More than two dozen states have some form of ID requirement to vote, and 11 of those passed new rules over the past two years largely at the urging of Republicans who say they want to prevent fraud. (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard to help identify voters in need of a state-government-issued ID card. More than two dozen states have some form of ID requirement to vote, and 11 of those passed new rules over the past two years largely at the urging of Republicans who say they want to prevent fraud. (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

At a time when conservative activists are working overtime to suppress votes in communities with large numbers of elderly, minority, young, and other underrepresented voters, no American should believe that an individual vote has no importance. So why, with less than four months until Election Day—long before the first ballot is cast—do some pundits and prognosticators suggest that the outcome of the 2012 presidential campaign is already a done deal?

Let’s be clear: Nothing is more central to being an American than the right to vote. Yet there’s ample evidence that some state legislatures have enacted an array of new laws to prevent some citizens from voting. These laws include new requirements for photo identification or limiting voter registration programs. As expertly outlined by Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden for the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 5 million Americans could be disenfranchised by state laws put in place during 2011.

“These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities,” Weiser and Norden write. “This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election.”

Yet within some circles of Washington’s never-ending political palaver parlors, a lively debate is afoot that seemingly ignores these voter-suppression realities. As this game is played, speculators wonder whether forces beyond the casting of votes will determine who gets elected president of the United States. If so, then what’s all this fuss about campaigns? And why are President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney rushing about the nation, raising money and begging for votes?

Indeed, as columnist Paul Farhi proffered recently in The Washington Post, “Do campaigns really change voters’ minds?” Specifically, Farhi profiled Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz and other election forecasters who have an impressive—and astounding—knack for calling the winner months before anyone enters an election booth.

Employing an estimating model that measures the president’s approval rating among the electorate at mid-year, economic growth in the second quarter of an election year, and incumbency, Abramowitz “has correctly called every popular-vote winner since he began forecasting elections in 1992,” Farhi writes. “He has come within two percentage points, on average, in predicting the winner’s share of the vote in those elections, too, including Al Gore’s super-squeaky majority in 2000.”

But Abramowitz isn’t the only one with a fine-tuned crystal ball. Other very accurate forecasters include political scientist James E. Campbell of the State University of New York at Buffalo, who has a model that calculates a series of Gallup polls, and Yale economist Ray C. Fair, whose accuracy in creating an early-call model for 21 of the 24 U.S. presidential elections since 1916 led him to write a book, Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things.

All this talk of predicting an election is predicated, at the end of the day, on the Electoral College system of electing the president. Presidents of the United States are not elected by a simple majority of the nation’s voters. Instead, voters in each state cast ballots as instruction for their respective votes to the Electoral College, which is apportioned based on the size of state’s congressional delegation. It takes 270 votes from the Electoral College to elect the president.

Given the high degree of political stratification and long-term voting patterns, it’s fairly easy to label states as either blue (Democrat) or red (Republican) in their voting trends. My Center for American Progress colleagues John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira framed the state-by-state challenge for electing the next president in an insightful paper, “The Path to 270,” which highlights the roles of demography and economics in the upcoming election.

Weaving all of these political threads into a novel fabric, political pundit Paul Begala argues there won’t be a national election in November. Instead, in a recently published Newsweek essay, Begala says that “boneheaded moves by the Founding Fathers” resulted in 50 statewide elections (actually 51—as most people do, he overlooked the District of Columbia, where I live and vote) “for presidential electors, who in turn pick our president.”

Begala argues that this system means that “95.4 million Americans can be taken for granted—nearly a third of our population,” because they live in hard blue (California, New York, or Illinois) or hard red (Texas and most of the Dixie states). Begala writes:

The truth is, the election has already been decided in perhaps as many as 44 states, with the final result coming down to the half-dozen states that remain: Virginia and Florida on the Atlantic Coast, Ohio and Iowa in the Midwest, and New Mexico and Colorado in the Southwest.

True, some votes in battleground states carry extra value. As Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC observes:

If you’re a voter in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, or Florida—representing a total of 110 electoral votes—your vote matters. A lot. These battleground states—those that could reasonably go to President Obama or to Mitt Romney—carry the weight of choosing the president for the entire country. It’s almost like battleground voters are one man-two votes!

But the fact is, nobody knows the future with perfect foresight. And I sincerely hope voters will disregard all this talk of predictive models as just more wallpaper-like noise that surrounds us in the election-year run-up.

Indeed, American voters must remember—especially as the right to vote is under attack all across our country—that no matter what any political scientist or talking-head journalist might suggest, every vote still counts. This essential fact demands that the right to vote for every American must be protected, and that conservative efforts to suppress targeted votes in key swing states to game the final Electoral College tally must be stopped.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)