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Why safe states” matter

Trent England - Jul 31, 2020

A charge often leveled against the Electoral College is that it’s unfair when campaigns focus on “swing states.” But in every election, some voters and communities get more attention than others. “Safe states” are not ignored—they are relied on by the candidates they already support.

Debbie is running for club president. It’s important because the next president will set a new direction for the club. Members are divided. Those who agree with Debbie asked her to run, and the other side selected Ronnie as their candidate. Out of 50 club members, about 20 are solidly with Ronnie and 20 agree with Debbie.

Ronnie and Debbie focus their campaigns on the 10 wavering members. They spend their time trying to convince them. And when three of the undecideds announce they have made up their minds, the “battleground” narrows even more.

Question: Why are the candidates ignoring most of the voters?

Answer: The candidates aren’t ignoring the other voters—they’re relying on them. If Ronnie loses five of his “safe” votes, he’ll lose the election. But he would be foolish to spend time trying to convince people who are already convinced.

A charge often leveled against the Electoral College is that it’s unfair when campaigns focus on “swing states.” But in every election, some voters and communities get more attention than others. “Safe states” are not ignored—they are relied on by the candidates they already support.

As my friend Tara Ross points out, the difference between safe and swing states is when they make up their minds. Every state matters. Just look at the 2000 election. Some say only Florida mattered, but if Al Gore had simply won his own home state of Tennessee, he would have won the White House. Or if George W. Bush had failed to flip West Virginia, again, Gore would have won.

In your state’s last governor’s race, how many times did you meet the candidates? A few voters will have met both major party contenders, but most did not. Some governor’s races were basically over at the party primary. In more balanced states, some voters will have seen many campaign commercials. But others will have seen fewer, or none at all, either because of where they live or how they consume media.

Advocates for schemes like National Popular Vote, which would hijack the Electoral College system to create a de facto direct election, often promise that every voter will suddenly be more important (NPV’s slogan is “Every voter equal”). But no election system with a large population spread over a large area will result in all voters being treated the same. The current Electoral College system does, however, prevent just one region or a cabal of the biggest states or cities from controlling the White House.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote, while the Electoral College may not be perfect, “it is at least excellent.”