Does your vote count?
As a politics major on a college campus in Pennsylvania, I feel an immense personal responsibility to encourage all my friends to vote. Most of the time, people are willing to nicely hear me out, but occasionally I find someone equally passionate as I am. A good friend of mine happened to be one of these people. He’s from New York, and was so excited for his first chance to vote! He registered in advance with his party, requested an absentee ballot in the mail, and waited. His primary came, but his ballot never did, and my excited friend was left unable to vote.
Almost exactly the same thing happened to at least four of my friends voting in Pennsylvania’s primary. Personally, I requested my Indiana absentee ballot about a month in advance. Good thing, because I had to call my election office and request a new “secrecy sleeve.” My first one had one signature on the front when it needed two. If I hadn’t done this in time, I too would have been unable to vote.
These are just a few examples of how the United States makes it extraordinarily difficult for its citizens to vote. Advance deadlines for absentee voting, long lines at polling stations, and strict identification to register make the act of voting hard. Even if we are able to vote, the complicated primary system and messy electoral districts make us wonder whether our vote really counts. For this reason, many Americans are disenchanted. Voter registration is dropping, as are voter participation rates (the percentage of registered voters who cast a vote). At the last presidential election in 2012, Pew Research Center found the percentage of people “highly engaged” in the election was down from the previous election in 2008 . This was true across all demographics but particularly true for younger voters, perhaps for reasons my friends and I discovered.
Because so many Americans feel like our political power is limited, preventing us from voting at all, today I examine the question we all are asking — “Does my vote count?” I conclude that systemic issues in voter registration, the primary system, and electoral districts contribute to unequal voting privileges. Your vote may not be felt, and this is undemocratic and needs reform. However, the absence of your vote will be felt, and the worst thing for American democracy is to throw in the towel and stay home on Election Day.
Before we begin, let’s hit a few key terms:
Electoral Districts: States are broken down into regions known as “electoral districts,” and each district elects one representative to the House of Representatives.
Gerrymandering: Drawing the lines of electoral districts to favor one party
Suffrage: Having the ability to vote
Enfranchisement: Having the ability to vote
Disenfranchisement: Not having the ability to vote
Precinct: The place in your county where you go to vote
It may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but one of the first systematic issues that may prevent your vote from counting is if you are unable to vote. This could happen for many reasons. First, every voter is required to register to vote, to prevent voter fraud (someone voting multiple times, voting in the place of someone else, etc). Each state decides what registration looks like, but for many it involves some kind of identification, proof of citizenship, etc. The problem is that this kind of documentation is expensive and difficult to maintain, so requiring ID disproportionately prevents lower-income and minority Americans from voting. Currently, the Elections Assistance Commission (the federal agency charged with making voting easier) is involved in a scandal surrounding voter registration. The new executive director Brian D. Newby ordered states to require proof of citizenship to register, allowing states like Kansas, Georgia and Alabama to make voting more difficult . The American voting system is broken when the agency supposed to make voting easier actually just made it more difficult. To those of us who have birth certificates, social security numbers, and even passports, requiring more documentation may seem trivial, but for many, collecting this documentation is arduous and expensive. Registering can get so complicated and frustrating that some voters are unable to vote at all, or just give up. Disenfranchisement first occurs when Americans are prevented from registering.
Next let’s examine what constrains those who are able to register. Registered voters either vote absentee (and experience the problems my friends and I faced), or go to their precinct to vote (and have a whole new set). This primary season, Arizona is a perfect example of one of the largest hurdles faced by those who go to vote — long lines. Arizona’s most populous county cut the number of voting locations by 70% from 2012, and voters were forced to wait for hours before casting their ballot . The most dedicated voters waited up to five hours to vote, whereas less dedicated voters simply waited in line for two hours, got bored and frustrated, and left before casting their ballot. Long lines at polling stations may seem like nothing more than an inconvenience, but it again has disproportionate effects across socioeconomic lines. If I am a wealthy business manager, my work schedule may have more flexibility, and I can go in a few hours late on voting day if I absolutely have to. If I am a single mother, my only chance to vote is a half an hour between when I get off work and when I have to pick the kids up from school. If this won’t work, I simply won’t be able to vote. If I am a minimum wage worker, I may not be able to afford the extra hours off work to wait in line. Long lines at polling stations truly prevent people from voting. Like registration, this is an issue of administration that can and should be reformed to be more just and effective.
Administrative issues like voter registration prevent individuals from voting, but deeper structural issues within the primary system itself unequally weigh votes. For example, my home state of Indiana has a very late primary (this year, it won’t take place until next Tuesday, May 3). Normally, this means the presidential nominees have effectively been decided, and our vote is more ceremonial . In fact, most of the candidates have already dropped out of the race, leaving us with one or two frontrunners to choose from. In a state like New Hampshire, with one of the first primaries, voters can choose from any number of candidates. Their voice appears to matter more, since they have a say in which candidates even make it to my ballot. Earlier this week, The Christian Science Monitor published an article about how the recent New York primary did not change the likely presidential nominations, since it mostly confirmed how other states had been voting. Elaine Kamarck of The Brookings Institute explains how this disorderly, haphazard system developed — part of the American political vision is decentralized power, so state-level party leaders fight to maintain control of their primaries. This means a lack of uniformity, but is it more democratic? Because the uneven primary system weighs some votes more highly than others based on state, it is not more democratic, and could be reformed to standardize votes’ weights.
We saw how administrative barriers prevent many from voting, and how the primary system values some regions’ primary election votes more highly than others. Unfortunately, the general election also harbors systemic imperfections that prevent our vote from meaning as much as it could. Here, we examine gerrymandering. This is easier to show than tell. Examine the shapes of the electoral districts below, in Indiana and Maryland:
Notice how Indiana’s electoral districts are largely rectangular, and share logical borders. In Maryland, in contrast, borders between districts twist and turn in bizarre ways. Why?
Electoral districts are generally set by state legislatures, who have vested interest in preserving their own seat in the state government. Therefore, a Republican Congressperson will want their district to be more Republican, so they will draw the lines to push Democratic-leaning regions into a different district. Democratic incumbents make the same choices, drawing districts to hurt Republicans. Too often, gerrymandering is done based on race — for example, if black voters have a plurality in a neighboring district, a legislator might reassign districts so that black voters in a white-majority district are moved into the black-plurality district. This exact scenario just happened in North Carolina, and as a result, all congressional votes will not be counted and a re-vote will occur in June . States such as Virginia and Maryland are also dealing with federal investigations into how districts are drawn . Advocates of gerrymandering argue that it allows each district to be better-represented by their legislator, but in reality, this only increases partisanship. A Democratic candidate in a very Democratic district will have to run far-left to win the spot, meaning that more partisan legislators are elected. Gerrymandering blocks voters based on how legislators assume they will vote, quickly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and protecting legislators already in office.
With this picture, the voting future of the United States looks bleak. Voter registration and long lines prevent voters from casting ballots, primary systems give voters in some regions more power than others, and gerrymandering stacks districts so outcomes are all but guaranteed. However, there are some very clear solutions. First, same-day voter registration allows voters to cast a vote, but that vote is not counted until ID checks have been cleared. This allows voters to vote even if they missed an arbitrary registration deadline, while protecting against voter fraud. In the mid-term elections of 2014, the state of Colorado began automatically mailing ballots to every registered voter. This prevented both delays in absentee ballots and long lines at polling stations, allowing voters to fit voting around a busy work schedule . To deal with the primary election inequality, early voting states could rotate by region, rather than Iowa and New Hampshire always coming around first. This would allow different regions to have different amounts of power in different years . Finally, rather than having state legislatures draw gerrymandered electoral districts, the Supreme Court has upheld an Arizona model that establishes an independent voting district commission . This independent body draws voting districts based on the logical shape of the state, rather than party distribution. Practical solutions exist to each problem in the voting system. If state legislatures and federal entities strived toward these pragmatic ideas, real change could be enacted.
So, does your vote matter? Right now, there are structural challenges in administration, primaries, and districting that make the voting future look bleak. But, if we collectively throw in the towel, assume our vote means nothing, and leave our political system where it is, the change that could come will be that much more difficult. Perhaps your vote feels small. Perhaps the challenges feel too great. But you are a part of this political community, and we need your voice to function. Vote despite the difficulties, but pressure your legislators and county election commission to make changes. Policy change is slow-moving, but within the American political structure, there is space for growth. We just have to demand it.