Does Every Vote Count?

It depends!


"Now we can say with certainty: Every vote counts," declared Ralph Northam, Virginia's Democratic governor-elect, last week. He was referring to the still-disputed contest for the 94th district in Virginia's House of Delegates.

After a recount, Democrat Shelly Simonds appeared to have won the race by a single vote. Then a three-judge panel awarded a disputed ballot to Republican David Yancey. The race is now tied, at least for the time being. If Simonds prevails, Democrats will gain a 50th seat in the House—forcing Republicans into a power-sharing arrangement.

Thus control of the House hangs on a single ballot. Little wonder that Northam says every vote counts—or that plenty of others agree:

  • "Every vote counts: 1 more ballot ties up Virginia House race," reported CNN.
  • "Every Vote Counts: VA House Of Delegates Now Split 50-50," claimed a writer for
  • "The moral of the story? Every vote counts," concluded a piece in New York magazine.

There are many more examples, but you get the drift.

What's more, as Bloomberg columnist and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter noted recently, other races have come down to a single vote, albeit not often: "A 2002 paper by economists Casey B. Mulligan and Charles G. Hunter analyzed 16,577 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives between 1898 and 1992 and found only one contest, in nearly a century, that was decided by a single vote… When they studied state legislative elections, they found nine more."

Here in Virginia, the Daily Press' David Ress recalls an instance in 1991, "when a recount gained Del. Jim Scott, D-Fairfax, a net 18 votes, turning his loss into victory by giving him a one-vote edge over Republican David Sanders—and the moniker 'Landslide Jim.'"

Case closed: The record proves that every vote can count. But as much as we'd like to think that's always the case, it isn't. In fact, a current challenge before the Supreme Court is premised on proving that a great many votes do not count at all.

The case concerns partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. The Supreme Court has ruled racial gerrymandering unconstitutional. But it has always maintained that partisan gerrymandering lies outside the court's purview, so any remedy for it must come from legislators—i.e., from the very people who perpetrate it. Good luck with that.

Challenges to partisan gerrymandering have faced another obstacle: finding what Justice Anthony Kennedy has called a "workable standard" for judging when redistricting plans cross the line between constitutional and unconstitutional. The suit in Wisconsin relies on what reformers hope will become such a standard: the efficiency gap.

What's that? As The New York Times explains: "In general, the goal of a partisan gerrymander is to force the other side to 'waste' votes, and that's exactly what the efficiency gap measures. A wasted vote is one that doesn't contribute to winning any additional districts. All of the votes beyond what's necessary to win a district are 'wasted' in victory. All votes are wasted in defeat, since they didn't result in any seat at all."

To find the efficiency gap, you add all the votes for the losers in a state's legislative races and all the surplus votes for the winners, then divide by the total number of votes. The creators of this measurement suggest using a 7 percent efficiency gap as the demarcation line between constitutional and unconstitutional gerrymandering. (It's not clear why 7 percent should be the magic number. But there has to be some magic number, and 7 percent might be as good as any other.)

In Wisconsin, the efficiency gap for the past three congressional elections has ranged from 10 percent to 13 percent in Republicans' favor. Three years ago, the GOP won 52 percent of the statewide vote—but 63 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly. In Maryland, the efficiency gap in congressional elections is 10.7 percent in Democrats' favor. So Democrats control seven out of eight seats in the House of Representatives, even though they won only three out of five votes statewide.

Ideally, of course, every vote should matter: Elections should be competitive, and the ratio of Democratic to Republican winners should track the ratio of Democratic to Republican votes. But that's not always possible, especially in statewide races. (The gubernatorial vote might split 60-40, but there's only one governor.) What's more, the efficiency gap can make fair maps look unfair in heavily partisan areas. Detroit tends to vote for Democrats by a 9-1 margin, but not because anybody gerrymandered Democrats into the city.

Yet the wish that every vote should always count does not mean every vote always does. And if the Supreme Court rules against Wisconsin's gerrymander and adopts the efficiency-gap test, then the notion that some votes are wasted in every election will no longer be a mere theory. It will be the law of the land.

NEXT: The Fourth Amendment, the Exclusionary Rule, and Illegal Government Searches

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  1. “Detroit tends to vote for Democrats by a 9-1 margin, but not because anybody gerrymandered Democrats into the city.”

    I’m certainly not going to argue against it if it’s working.

    1. That might be because every one except those who depend upon entitlements have already left the city.

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    2. It’s not gerrymandering there, it’s outright election fraud. When recounts cannot be certified due to the sheer size of the physical ballot versus reported totals then neither total should stand not the inflated and unverifiable reported totals.

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  2. Seems that the more local the election (delegate, city/county council, school committee), the fewer the votes, and the more value each vote has. Where I live, these all go to the dems no matter who is running, hence why I have realized that it doesn’t make much sense for me to bother voting in any election.

    1. Actually, that is a reason to vote in the Dem primary.

      1. Why? They are all trying to outprog each other because that is who turns out to vote in the dem primary and whoever wins can count on 70-80% of the vote in the general election.

        1. If they’re all trying to outprog, vote for the less successful at that.

      2. In Texas that disqualifies you from voting in the LP selection. The damn machines that won’t let you write in a libertarian are a nuisance voters need to be made aware of. Our spoiler votes repeal bad laws, lower their taxes and cause cops to avoid shooting their kids.

        1. What is this magic unicorn that causes cops to stop shooting anything? Shenanigans, I say.

    2. I don’t know what is happening in NOVA but it has been turning more and more blue at a faster and faster rate over the past twenty years. Glad I got out when I did.

      1. Yep-NoVA, DC, and Montgomery County, MD-same place-different license plates. It would make sense to let DC become a state and give them both.

        1. I would agree, but that would be two more seats in the Senate and at least 2-3 seats in the House that would be solid Dem.

          1. It would be two more seats in the Senate that were solidly Dem, but without NoVa, wouldn’t Virginia be solidly Republican rather than tipping Democrat? Would removing Baltimore give Republicans a chance in Maryland?

  3. Come on, when are they going to find the lost stack of absentee ballots that will settle this once and for all?

    1. Isn’t that thoughtful. An Al Franken tribute…

  4. ‘Does your vote count?’ is an entirely different question than ‘Does your vote matter?’

    1. Someone gets it.

      1. And if its an LP spoiler vote, it’s easily worth a dozen looter votes in law-changing clout.

    2. “Does your vote count?’ is an entirely different question than ‘Does your vote matter?”

      It is, and to a minarchist your vote shouldn’t matter much at all.

  5. I registered to vote once. Afterwards I was immediately called up for jury duty and started receiving almost daily political junk mail and solicitations, so it was a mistake. I’ve since moved and haven’t registered again and don’t plan to. I’d like to see more people doing the same. I don’t want voter turn out to be the only thing that’s disastrously low. I want voter registration to be in “crisis mode” to where the news is wondering wtf is going on.

    1. Yeah the amount of garbage I get in the mail dried up immensely after I de-registered.

    2. If enough voters don’t register to vote then the few who do will select the politicians who rule you. In many areas the politician “that promises the most” will be the politician who gets elected. Now “that promises the most” those promises are not for jobs and better housing but the most “entitlements” AKA welfare. If those promises were of jobs and the politician had fulfilled their promises of jobs there would not have been a republican around to vote, well, not enough of them to make any difference anyway.

  6. “Elections should be competitive, and the ratio of Democratic to Republican winners should track the ratio of Democratic to Republican votes.”

    Why? There are many questionable assumptions built into that statement.

    1. What do representatives represent, their districts, the people who voted for them, or their party? Your statement only makes sense if party representation is their primary function.
    2. What are voters voting for, the person or the party? Your statement assumes people are voting for the party. Lots of times I have reasons to want a D to win locally but D’s to lose nationally. Why should the system protect mindless robot partisans but screw people who look at the candidate and the issues?
    3. 40+% of the electorate claims to not align with a party. Why the **** should D/R ratio be a constitutional right, but not male/female, gay/straight, rural/urban?

    To sum it all up, independent voters are now the largest block. Any “solution” to gerrymandering needs to explicitly recognize and protect their interests.

  7. And most of this is incentivized and enabled by single-seat districts. Once you swap to multi-seat districts, then it becomes both massively more difficult and increasingly pointless.

    You may not like it, but yeah, most people are just voting for a letter after a name, and not paying attention to the name itself. The name itself matters more in primaries then the general.

    1. If proportional party representation is what you want, then there’s really no point to having geographic districts at all. Districts are just a complication that requires lots of explicit gerrymandering, albeit “fair” gerrymandering, to get the “correct” result. Multi-seat districts are a step toward getting rid of them.

      I’m suspicious of any system that tries to determine the result of an election. Of course old-fashioned partisan gerrymandering is guilty, but so is trying to engineer a particular D/R ratio: that just further locks in the bipartisan system and screws people who want something different.

      1. If proportional party representation is what you want […]
        Actually, multi-seat districts make it easier for independents to get a seat, and restrict party power. If a given district has five seats up for grabs, then a minority-interest group with only 20% of the populace can get a seat at the table.

        To put it simply, I am constantly amazed at how many people complaining about the existing two-party system absolutely abhor alternatives that make it easier for third-parties and independents to get into office.

        1. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. Didn’t say I was against multi-seat districts, if they are done right. There are ways to not do it right: some states (e.g. Alabama on occasion) elected all their reps statewide, but individually, at large. I hope you agree that’s not the way to do it.

          Options I’ve seen floated for a five member district:

          1. Five separately contested at-large seats. Ends up 5-0 if every votes party line on each seat.
          2. One vote per voter, top five win. Good for third parties.
          3. Each voter chooses five, top five win. Probably ends up 5-0 if there is any kind of voter discipline.
          4. Each voter has five votes, can lump them up on one person or spread them out. Disciplined third party voters can get a representative.

          1. In Australia that system resulted in rule by tax-happy, gun-grabbing socialist looters, with electrical blackouts everywhere.

  8. My vote doesn’t count; I live in CA.

  9. As far as voting and does the vote count if the democrats had been correct about voter ID there would not have been enough poor, underprivileged people registered to make a difference in the Alabama vote. But we see that the voter ID did not stop the poor and underprivileged from registering and voting to the extent to elect a democrat to the senate from Alabama, the first in about two decades. So just to keep voters honest and to catch those who vote in more than one place more voter registration will be helpful especially the snow birds who live in northern states during the summers and move south during the winters. At the present time there is no way to check if any of them have voted in both places.

    1. Well sure, if you want a National ID.

  10. Libertarian votes don’t ever count anywhere. I laugh when Democrats complain about gerrymandering. They’re upset that the 32% of the population which are Democrats only have 48% of the control of the country. Meanwhile the 20% of the population which are fiscally conservative and socially liberal get 0%.

    1. Libertarian votes count at an exchange rate of roughly a dozen to one for repealing bad laws and tripping up the worst of the two looter evils. History demonstrates this by simple induction.

  11. Proportional representation is probably the only way to sustain a viable third party. It’d be a heavy lift to change the election rules, but perhaps doable for state elections.
    Also, instant run-off ballots that allow one to rank order their preferences.

    Libertarians should make common-cause with greens, socialists conservative party in NY, etc to get these reforms enacted.

    1. Does “viable” mean 1) elects looter politicians or 2) scares looter politicians into repealing rights-violating laws?

  12. The Libertarian Party got over 118000 votes in Virginia in 2016. At 4% that’s about double what they had before. But the Virginia vote that counted most was the single electoral vote for the pro-choice male+female Hospers+Nathan ticket. That vote got our pro-choice plank written into the the Roe v. Wade decision at a time when Virginia’s looter parties had kept the LP off the ballot there. Nothing can change the shape of things to come!

  13. Gerrymandering is a disease in his country. That’s why I propose mandatory, competitive redistricting for every election, 50-50 it could go either way.

    That way, there’s always a 50% chance you don’t have any representation in any given legislature or executive office.

  14. Doesn’t this prove every vote does not count? If the election’s ever close enough that a single vote might decide it, it gets decided in court.

  15. I have mixed feelings about Gerrymandering. Sure, it’s icky, but it’s also fun to see the consequences of how following the rules plays out!

    Having said that, I can’t help but notice that the biggest opponents of Gerrymandering are Democrats who complain that Republicans are now Gerrymandering districts to solidify their wins in State houses. It should be observed that (1) these same Democrats didn’t seem to have any problems with Gerrymandering when Democrats were in office (although some do grudgingly admit this, and then retort that Republicans are doing it harder), (2) in order to Gerrymander districts, you have to be in power — which means that Republicans have been winning *despite* the previous Gerrymandering, and (3) (this is my most favorite), Democrats are ignoring that Republicans have been winning Governorships and Senate seats, which, being State-wide elections, aren’t Gerrymandered.

    In other words, Democrats have been losing elections on a local, State, and even Federal level — and they have blamed the rules (rules which, by the way, they’ve prospered under for decades) for their losses, rather than their own platform, politics, strategies, and what-not. (to be continued)

    1. (continued) As for myself? I’m partial to reforms that will allow more parties to be able to come to the table; however I am also convinced that, whether the Libertarian party has 0% or 10% representation in the House or Senate, it probably won’t have much effect on the outcomes…

      Too many people are addicted to power and free stuff, and changing the rules isn’t going to affect that!

  16. “The Supreme Court has ruled racial gerrymandering unconstitutional. But it has always maintained that partisan gerrymandering lies outside the court’s purview…”

    Of course, racial gerrymandering is allowed if it is FOR a partisan purpose. The Democrats have for years crammed all their blacks into as few districts as possible, so that their white voters won’t have to suffer the anguish of having to express their liberal preferences while voting for a black candidate. NOT A SINGLE BLACK DEMOCRAT has ever been elected to the House of Representatives from a district that was not majority black.

    The result is that the Congressional Black Caucus is populated with idiots like Maxine Waters, Frederica Wilson, Hank Johnson, and Sheila Jackson Lee, and reinforces the notion in their constituents that skin color is the only necessary and sufficient qualification for office.

    1. Black Democrats with districts being minority black: Barbara Lee, CA 13th, 20% black. Emanuel Cleaver MO 5th, 22% black. Gwen Moore, WI 4th, 33% black. Andre Carson IN 7th, 29% Black, Keith Ellison MN 5th, 13% Black

      And then there’s Mia Love but she’s Republican UT 4th, her district is only 1.7% black.

      Plenty of evidence that most districts have it together and look past skin color.

  17. Not every vote counts? I live in California. Tell me all about it

  18. There are different kinds of proportional voting. The worst is the party-list system, which many of the British-model countries follow. E.g., there are 5 seats in a district. Parties put up a slate of candidates, ranked 1-5. Voters put in one vote for a party, not a candidate, and the parties divvy up the seats according to the proportion of the votes, selecting the winners in the rank order on the slate. The thing is, parties generally come to be dominated by looters (certainly both of the major American parties are), and under that system anyone who objects to the looting is going to be at #5 if they get on the slate at all… It’s bad that we only have two or three non-looter Congressmen like Justin Amash, but in a party list system we wouldn’t even have those few to protest the looting.

    A better system would ignore parties. One possible way: There are 5 seats and 500,000 voters (guessing at the average turnout for 5 Congressional districts). Voters pick 5 candidates, ranking them 1 through 5. All the votes are added up, and the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. The votes for them are then moved to the highest remaining candidate on each voters list – so when one of your choices is gone, your #1 remaining gets two votes. Repeat this until only 5 candidates are left.

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