What would you tell a voter who lives in a state with little sway in the presidential election, either because their state is pretty securely red or blue or because their state doesn’t get many electoral college votes? A lot of my friends feel like their votes don’t really matter, because we live in a small state that reliably votes Democratic. What impact can they have in the upcoming national election?
Your friends aren’t wrong that their individual votes will have a negligible impact on the 2020 presidential race. Unfortunately, because of the deeply anti-democratic nature of the electoral college, most people’s votes won’t. But while your friends’ individual votes may not matter much, the actions they take between now and the election can have a huge impact.
Like most institutions of our ostensibly “representative” democracy, the electoral college isn’t actually very representative at all. Our first-past-the-post voting system awards exclusive political power to the party that secures 51% of the vote, denying any representation to the other 49% of voters. The wildly undemocratic nature of the Senate awards the same number of senators to Wyoming (population 579,000) as it does to California (population 39.5 million), giving every Wyoming resident the political clout of 68 Californians.
Combine the worst aspects of both those systems and you get the electoral college, which grants the entirety of a state’s electors to the candidate who wins a majority of its voters, disenfranchising all the rest. And because the number of a state’s electors is based on the size of its congressional delegation, small states like Wyoming or New Hampshire are hugely overrepresented in comparison to large states like California. Structurally, this dilutes the power of progressive voters in deep blue states in the Northeast and Southwest and of progressive voters in deep red states—particularly in the South, where the largest concentration of Black voters in the country frequently find themselves without electoral college representation whatsoever.
The upshot of all this is that the outcome of the presidential election will likely be determined by a (relatively) small number of voters in a handful of “swing” states—Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan. (And perhaps Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Maine.)
In the long-term, we must fight to dismantle these racist, unrepresentative and deeply anti-democratic structures. In the short term, we must fight our opponents on a political terrain largely conditioned by them. Concretely, that means that progressive forces must concentrate our energy, attention and resources on the handful of states where our efforts can make a real difference towards defeating Trump and Trumpism in 2020.
In a sense, the silver lining here is that the relatively small number of states in play allows us to concentrate our resources more effectively. Until we defeat racial capitalism, the Left will always have less resources (money, organization, infrastructure) than the Right. The main resource we have is people, which is a finiteresource—in contrast to the near infinite wealth of our opponents. That means our opponents can literally afford to scatter there resources broadly, where we need to focus ours narrowly, in order to use them most effectively. When we do so, organized people are able to defeat organized money.
The main way your friends in deep-Blue states can meaningfully impact the 2020 presidential election, in other words, is by finding ways to boost capacity for on-the-ground organizing in critical swing states that will determine its outcome. One-to-one conversations are still the most impactful way to increase voter turnout and, because most voter engagement is happening via phone and text this year, people can sign up to do that work from anywhere. If people are unable to phone bank, there are so many other ways to boost capacity—from donating to data entry. So I would encourage your friends to seek out permanent, year-round organizations building grassroots political power in states like Florida, Arizona and North Carolina and find ways to support their work.
One fantastic opportunity is Freedom in the Fall—a 5-day virtual solidarity brigade that will bring leftists from around the country to support groups building grassroots political power in North Carolina. After a one-day orientation, volunteers will phone bank with allied organizations on the ground in order to ensure critical wins this November. You can sign up for it here!
And, of course, folks need to be building independent political organization in deep-blue states as well. Though they can’t directly impact the presidential election, grassroots groups in progressive regions can have a huge impact on the overall political landscape by running progressives for local, state and federal office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just one example of how local political organizing can dramatically shift the national landscape!
Finally, though I’ve spent most of the article stressing the relative insignificance of voting for Biden in states that are not in play this election cycle, it is actually important that your friends go out and vote for him. Trump is already attempting to undermine the validity and credibility of the election results, and there are a number of scenarios in which he loses the election, but refuses to leave. For instance, the partisan split around mail-in voting (with Democrats much more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year) makes it possible that the election night results will see Trump winning, only for that to be gradually overturned as mail-in ballots are counted over the next days and weeks. It’s all too easy to imagine Trump challenging the validity of those absentee ballots and refusing to leave office. The bigger the vote margin is against Trump, the harder it is for him to do that. In other words, our task this year isn’t just to defeat Trump; it’s to defeat Trump by historic margins. And for that, every vote everywhere really does count.