Your Vote Doesn’t Matter in Illinois, but maybe It Could in Florida

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Millions of Americans have already cast their ballots for tomorrow’s elections. In fact, some pundits have speculated that these millions of votes may decide the outcome of the presidential election, or at least could signal the eventual outcome. However, the vast majority of Americans will wait until tomorrow to find a convenient time to travel to their polling place, potentially waiting their turn in line for hours in order to practice their right to be a part of American democracy. At least this will give them plenty of time to make their final voting decisions, which is good since some polling places have a time limit on the how long you have to cast your ballot. They will then go back home or to work and consume election coverage, waiting to see if their preferred candidate(s) won. If they did not, at least you earned your right to complain about the government.

For all those Americans for which this is a reasonable facsimile of tomorrow it is important to keep two facts in mind when planning your Election Day: 1) Voting is irrational; and 2) If you do vote, that vote doesn’t matter. These two points are a product of the unique electoral system of the United States. First, politicians are elected based on plurality rule, meaning the candidate with the most votes wins, even if their vote total is not an absolute majority. Second, the United States has single-member districts, meaning each individual electoral district produces only one officeholder. This is otherwise known as “winner-take-all”. Finally, the outcome of the presidential election is based not on the popular vote but Electoral College votes. When you cast your vote for a presidential candidate tomorrow you’re not really voting for that candidate, you’re voting for an Elector from your state who will then support the popular state candidate. While there is no rule that state Electors must conform to the popular vote, digressions from this practice are rare. Therefore, presidential candidates gain electoral votes from individual states via winning the plurality of votes in those states. The presidential candidate who gains 270 Electoral College votes is declared the winner of the election.

It may the be tempting to say that your vote does count because even though you vote for an Elector rather than directly for the president, if the Elector votes based on the popular vote then that Elector is casting your ballot, just by proxy. However, as the popular vote is a simple plurality and in all states except Nebraska and Maine one candidate receives all Electoral College votes, your vote matters under very narrow circumstances. Two conditions must be met for your individual vote to have mattered in the presidential election: 1) If the presidential candidate for whom you cast your ballot wins the popular vote in in your state by a single vote; and 2) That candidate then wins the Electoral College vote by a total equal to or less than the number of Electoral College votes from your state.

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If these two conditions are met then your individual vote matters. If not, then your vote did not matter. In states such as California, Illinois and New York, which will undeniably go Democrat, or Indiana, Texas and South Carolina, which will go Republican, it would thereby be almost impossible for your vote to matter.

Obviously the thought that their individual vote will not decide the outcome of the presidential election does not prevent millions of Americans from casting a ballot. The decision to vote is subjective and not necessarily based on rational cost/benefit calculations, or at least those calculations are based on subjective measures of cost and benefit. Most Americans vote because they want to, not because they think it will actually decide the election. However, for many it is important they feel as though their vote matters to some degree. Especially those who wish to vote for third-party candidates (who can’t win).

For these members of the American electorate they may trade their votes. And thanks to an increase in knowledge by many potential voters that their individual vote does not matter, a particularly contentious election with unpopular candidates, and the proliferation of technology, vote horse-trading has become simpler and more popular than ever. The #NeverTrump app “matches Democratic voters in states like California with supporters of Jill Stein or Gary Johnson in swing states, giving each voter a chance to cast a ballot in a state that could have a greater impact”. TrumpTraders.org is an online marketplace which as of a week ago had matched 40,000 voters. These are two of the biggest such vote trading marketplaces and as of Sunday evening had “facilitated the trading of over 50,000 votes combined, and more than 12,000 in key swing states”. There are also numerous other sites and apps which market this practice. And the process is simple.

Vote trading is not a new concept. And despite the protestation so some, it is legal. The practice is, however, based on the honor system. There is no guarantee your agreement with someone to trade votes will be honored. There’s no guarantee that person will even vote. But it is more rational than simply casting your ballot for your preferred candidate, especially if that candidate is a third-party candidate, in a non-swing state. Vote trading is a classic example of strategic voting. It is the definition of trying to “make your vote count”.

Even if these vote marketplaces gain 100,000 promises to trade votes there is still no guarantee your vote will matter. Unless the number of vote traders increases exponentially or there are multiple swing states which are extremely close, your vote probably won’t matter. But then if you’re relying on anonymously agreeing to trade votes across state lines with strangers then it’s really a matter of relativity. Of course, in the 2000 presidential election the Electoral College votes of Florida were determined by fewer than 500 votes.

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