Friday, January 6, 2012

On Elections, I: Your Vote Actually Doesn’t Count

With the Iowa Caucses coming to a merciful end a few days ago, I cannot help but think about politics right now. After all, we are entering Election Year—that every-fourth-year national event where we all get angry and argue at each other and ruin relationships over how we each will be voting in an election in which we allegedly have the power to choose which of two terrible candidates we hate the least. We will spend the year inundated with debates and campaign ads and pontifications and promises which will never be kept.

And then in November we will vote. A completely wasted effort. Because here is the reality: your vote doesn’t count.

I know what you’re thinking: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. But Michael, MTV says that I need to rock the vote. And they have always proven to be very knowledgeable in the past when it comes to statistical significance calculations.” So I know, I know—I’m crazy. But trust me on this.

Am I saying you shouldn’t vote? Maybe. But not necessarily. I probably will vote this year. Because when you go to the polls often there is some local issue that your vote can actually impact—local referendums for example, or amendments to your state’s constitution, or the election of mayors and aldermen in your town.

But the Presidency is not one of the things upon which your vote has any influence.

Stay with me here.

Let's start by looking at the popular vote. In the 2008 presidential election, over 129 million votes were cast. Mine was one of them, and yours probably was, too. So if we measure your influence on the election, your vote carried an influence of 0.0077 parts per million (ppm). Or, to state it differently, you influenced the popular vote by a rate of 0.00000077%. That is, 99.99999923% of the vote was out of your control.

Let me put that in a few examples for you.

• Your vote had as much influence over the past election as the amount of arsenic that the FDA allows to be in your drinking water.

• Your vote in the last election had 1,300 times LESS influence than the amount of cyanide that your company can pump into the air vents at work without even telling you about it.

• If I took 130 fifty-five gallon drums of water, filled a tanker truck with it, and added two drops of gasoline—would you feel comfortable filling your car with it? Probably not. But the two drops of gasoline had as much influence on the 7000+ gallons of water as your vote had in the 2008 popular election.

• Imagine I took two cars out of all the cars in the United States and made them completely energy-independent. Your vote in the last election had as much influence over the result as my conversion of two cars would have on our fuel needs.

• If you choose not to vote, it has as much influence on the popular vote as one person in a room of 26 loses a single hair off of their head influences the total baldness of the room.

The numbers are staggeringly against the popular vote. Your vote literally has no influence.

But, you say, in the primaries and caucuses—there we can make a difference, right? After all, Romney only won Iowa by 8 votes this year. Eight votes!

Sorry, but no. You see, Romney’s win got him seven delegates. Santorum’s second place finish…seven delegates. Ron Paul’s third place finish…seven delegates. You see, if the caucus is a landslide then your vote is irrelevant because it is overwhelmed by the mass of other votes. If the caucus is a close race (as it was this year), then the delegates will essentially be split anyway, so a win is only good for the candidates “momentum”—it doesn’t really make any difference.

And keep in mind—even if a candidate swept Iowa (as Obama will, running unopposed), it still only accounts for 1% of the delegates who will do the nomination at the National Convention later this year. And now that 1% is split three ways. So no…those 8 votes were irrelevant.

Further, winning a caucus or primary is only relevant if you are still in the race when the Convention happens. In 2008, Mike Huckabee dominated Iowa but was out of the race by convention time; as a result, Iowa’s delegates went 100% for McCain—so literally, the voting did not matter.

Okay, okay. But that’s all popular voting. We use an electoral college. How does that affect it?

Actually it makes it worse.

There are seven states (Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) that have always voted Republican by comfortable margins, for the last 44 years. If you are Republican, going to the polls likely makes no difference as the rest of the state who votes will elect your guy; if you are Democrat or Independent, it also doesn’t matter. It is already decided. There are two other states (Indiana and Virginia) that have gone Republican for 9 of the last 10 elections. This accounts for 58 electoral college votes right off the bat. Likewise Texas is a virtual certainty for the Republicans, bringing the total up to 92 electoral college votes just for having the “R” after your name.

Meanwhile, the Democrats naturally lock up California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont in any given year. So they start out with 139 votes for the “D” after their name. (This year, if Romney is the nominee, maybe he wins in Massachusetts, shifting the starting point total from 139-92 to 127-104.

A President needs 270 electoral college votes to win the election. And so it is that three states in particular (Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania) become extremely important. Together they share 58 votes and can be “swung” from year to year. Add a few other uncertain states and a candidate can lock up the Presidency merely by winning a few key swing states and adding them to the historically-sure thing states.

So for this election, the key swing states are seen as: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, Nevada, Iowa, and Minnesota. It is in these 9 states (and their 112 electoral votes) that the entire Presidency will be decided. Lose Florida and Pennsylvania and you nearly have to run the table everywhere else to have a chance.

So unless you live in one of those places this year, then your vote counts even less than we discussed above—because your state is already either decided or irrelevant. And if you do live in one of those states, your one voice is just an insignificant drop in the bucket of the election.

So what does count?


That’s right, money is the primary factor in who wins the election. Because all that really matters is who can spend the most money in the swing states on ads and travel, and who can hire the best team for organizing and getting the swing state votes. It seems that in the U.S., your money speaks much louder than your vote, and allows your ‘investment’ to be applied in the states where the candidate needs it the most (as opposed to your vote, which is in a state that is probably already decided and thus is useless).


• In 2008, Obama raised more than double the money that McCain raised. He won the election by a comfortable margin.

• In 2004, Bush raised 15% more than Kerry, and won a fairly close election.

• In 2000, Bush raised 57% more than Gore, and famously won despite losing the popular vote.

So as demonstrated by the last decade of results and proven dramatically by Bush in 2000, if you have the right money and focus it on winning the right swing states, you will win the election—regardless of whether you win the popular vote or not.


In America, it is not your vote that counts—don’t let anyone fool you. What counts is your ability to multiply your opinions into gaining thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of votes—and getting them in the proper states (rather than where you live today). And from that point of view, putting your money behind a candidate is far more effective than picking his or her name on a ballot.

So if you love a particular candidate this year (Obama or Romney or Santorum or whoever), them put your money where your mouth is and donate to them. Then stay home on election day while everyone else fights the crowds.

Chance are, I have upset some of you with this post. You will be righteously and zealously angry at me for suggesting to people that their votes are statistically irrelevant, and that they might as well stay home on Election Tuesday unless there is something of import at the local level which is up for election. In our next post, we will explore why my suggestion touches such a nerve…

1 comment:

  1. I got some flak from a person in my life in 2008 for not voting and I explained that if I vote against candidate X it amounts to nothing because I already knew from what state I was in the electoral votes were going to candidate X. I got a bit of an earful about how I was letting a person as bad as the Antichrist gain power. There's a huge difference between being a Christian and conflating one's personal faith as a Christian with civic religion and patriotism. A friend of mine who grew up in Nagasaki and only visited the U.S. as an adult (a PK) once told me that the thing she noticed about American Christians is they usually conflated the "American" identity with the "Christian" identity. I read part 2 and I see that's basically where you went. :)