US election recap

November 15, 2008

Ten days after the US elections, the votes are still being counted in several states.  Preliminary estimates show a turnout of about 61.4% of eligible voters, the highest since 1968, which, combined with Canada’s historic low turnout in its recent federal election, means that for the first time in recent memory the US actually had higher voter turnout than Canada.

But despite this increase in turnout, which works out to about 130 million votes, it still falls short of the tidal wave predicted by many pundits, many of whom expected to see a number closer to 140 or 150 million voters.  So why this relatively modest increase, in such a historic and energized election year?

Certainly we should be worried about votes that might not have been counted at all, either from voters who had been overzealously purged from the registration lists, or votes that were lost on error-prone optical scanners or faulty electronic voting machines.

But it might also be the case that many voters, no matter how motivated they were, still didn’t bother to vote because they knew that the outcome of the election (in their state, at least) was already determined months or years previously.  Unless you live in a “battleground” or “swing” state, it makes little difference whether you show up to vote for president or not.

The reason is the Electoral College.  The US Presidential election is really a series of winner-take-all elections in each state.  In most states, (the proverbial “red” and “blue” states) the winner has been known months in advance, giving the candidates no motivation to campaign in those states, and similarly giving the voters little reason to make the effort to go out and vote.  A post by the US FairVote organization shows how the ten most visited states accounted for nearly 3/4 of all campaign visits.  Campaign advertising has been similarly unbalanced.

Clearly, while each citizen’s vote is technically equal, some are far more important than others.  Switching to a national popular vote is only one of many steps that the US needs to take to make its presidential elections more democratic.

Before we get too smug that Canada doesn’t have an undemocratic Electoral College, remember the recent federal election in which a few key regions served the same purpose.  The party leaders made very few campaign stops in any “safe” ridings, instead directing all their attention to a handful of swing ridings mainly in Quebec, Ontario and BC.  The first-past-the-post system that both the US and Canada inherited from Britain means that the outcome of most races is predetermined.

This is particularly extreme in the US House of Representatives.  Again, Canadians might feel smug and blame gerrymandering, but as we’ve seen in the Canadian House of Commons, it is the first-past-the-post system that is fundamentally undemocratic and limits voter choice.  In the previous House election, only 40 out of 435 congressional seats were even considered “competitive” by a FairVote US report.

None of this should diminish the significance of Barack Obama’s victory, nor the very real swing towards the Democrats in congress.  Both of these results seemed to accurately reflect the national mood in the United States, but this occurred not as the outcome of a healthy electoral system, but in spite of an archaic, undemocratic system that is still desperately in need of reform.

The American political landscape changed ten days ago, but we must remember that the race was in fact decided by only a very small percentage of the American population.  For voters in most states, the results of the election were determined long before the campaign even began.


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