I have lived and voted in three cities since I turned 18: New Haven, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
While I have been extremely proud to call each of these unique cities my home, they all have one big disadvantage for a young voter who cares about presidential politics: none of these cities are located in swing states, the only states that ever receive any attention in presidential elections.
During the 2012 presidential elections, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent 99.6 percent of their television advertising money in the general election targeting voters in just 10 states, including the usual focus on Ohio and Florida. Neither candidate held a single campaign event outside those 10 states after the party conventions. The 2008 election wasn’t much different, with only a few more states receiving any attention at all.
As someone who cares deeply about national politics and wants to see other young people care as well, I am disheartened by the way my three homes are treated during presidential elections. My home states are ignored because of state laws that allocate Electoral College votes on a winner-take-all basis. Because of these laws, which are on the books in 48 states and D.C., states allocate all of their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate gets the most votes in that state. Therefore, when it is clear that one candidate or the other is going to win a state, it is useless to spend a dime reaching out to voters there, as that campaigning will never affect a single electoral vote.
As a result, campaigning only matters if the statewide outcome is in doubt. And with today’s polarized voting patterns, fewer and fewer states’ outcomes are ever in doubt. In 1988, 21 states were swing states; today only 10 or 11 are. A generation ago, the identify of swing states changed dramatically from election to election; today, it’s rigid, making it a foregone conclusion that at least 36 states, including Connecticut, have no chance of being a swing state in 2016.
The fact that only 10 states are targeted in presidential elections is troubling for several reasons. The first is that it creates a huge discrepancy in political engagement and interest in politics between the residents of the 10 swing states and the 41 safe states (including D.C.) In 2012, eligible voters (citizens 18 years or older) were 8 percent more likely to vote if they lived in a swing state.
If a voter was between 18 and 24 years old, like I am, they were 22 percent more likely to vote if they lived in a swing state. Since young people who don’t vote during the first few elections after they reach voting age are less likely to vote later in life, this discrepancy in turnout is likely to have a far-reaching impact.
In addition, this differential in electoral importance can affect public policy. For example, a study by Dr. John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, found that swing states received 8 percent more federal grants between 1996 and 2008 than they would have if they had been uncompetitive states.
Luckily, Connecticut lawmakers can pass a law that will make Connecticut voters as relevant in presidential elections as voters in Ohio and Florida. The National Poplar Vote plan is an interstate compact that states join by passing state legislation, committing to having all of their electoral votes be cast by the electors supporting the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact is only triggered once it has been adopted in states representing a majority of Electoral College votes (270), thereby guaranteeing that the White House to the winner of the national popular vote – and thereby, making every vote in every state matter.
Since the U.S. Constitution gives states the exclusive discretion in deciding how to award their Electoral College votes, this is a way to improve our presidential election system by making every vote equal with state laws rather than with a federal constitutional amendment. Under the National Popular Vote plan, candidates will need to travel and campaign in every corner of the country in search of votes, rather than in 10 pre-determined competitive states like they do today.
Advocates are currently half way to reaching that goal: the National Popular Vote bill has been enacted in 9 states — California, Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, D.C., New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont — which control 132 Electoral College votes, 49 percent of the votes needed to activate the compact. Connecticut can be next on the list if the legislature acts to pass SB 432, the Connecticut Senate’s National Popular Vote bill.
We know Connecticut residents care about presidential elections. We donate millions of dollars to presidential candidates and spend time making phone calls to voters in Ohio to get out the vote there. It is time, at long last, for the candidates to care about us again. Under National Popular Vote, they will.
Andrea Levien is a Research Fellow at FairVote. You can read more about the National Popular Vote plan at www.fairvote.org/national-popular-vote, or in her article “How the 2012 Presidential Election Has Strengthened the Movement for the National Popular Vote Plan” in the June 2013 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly.