Wasted Vote? There’s No Such Thing

Howard Husock is the director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

If you live in California and you’re a Republican, you probably think your vote in the presidential race is worthless, an empty gesture. After all, the state (with its 55 electoral votes) is safely in the John Kerry camp. Likewise, George W. Bush has Texas; so why bother to go to the polls in the Lone Star State if you are a Democrat?

In fact, every vote will matter on Nov. 2. Of course it’s true that the electoral college will decide the winner. But who can doubt that, four years after Bush won with half a million fewer votes than Al Gore, the popular vote tally will be more important than ever. Indeed, it is little exaggeration to say a crisis of legitimacy could ensue if either candidate is elected without at least a plurality of the popular vote.

Before the 2000 election, only three presidents in U.S. history assumed office after winning fewer votes than their opponents: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Bill Clinton, of course, did not have a majority of the vote -- thanks to the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot -- but he did have more votes than George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.


If George W. Bush wins next month, he will become the first president to be reelected despite first entering office without at least a plurality of the vote. Yet today, the perception of presidential legitimacy -- from supporters and opponents alike -- has acquired unprecedented importance. No 19th century president presided over a government that reached into every corner of American life, and the man we elect in November will be leader of the world’s sole superpower.

With no serious third-party candidate and a nation closely divided, it’s possible that the electoral college loser will have more than 50% of the popular vote. The danger appears to be greater for Bush. If he wins, the president can credit a large number of states with relatively small populations, while Kerry’s support is concentrated in a smaller number of states with a great many voters. A recent CNN state-by-state projection shows Bush winning 32 states and Kerry 17 (Maine’s electoral votes would be divided under that state’s law), with the president winning the electoral college vote 301 to 237. The fact that no state can have fewer than three electoral votes, no matter how small its population, helps buoy the president’s total.

This prospective outcome would be similar to four years ago, when Bush won 30 states and Gore 20. Yet Gore had a plurality of the popular vote by a margin of about 500,000 -- in large part because of the huge majorities he won in states with large populations, particularly New York and California, where he won by a combined 3 million votes. He might well have won by 3.6 million votes had Ralph Nader not been on the ballot. By electoral college math alone, there is little motivation for Republican voters in these two states -- or Massachusetts, for that matter -- to go to the polls.

Virtually all other high-population states -- such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- are considered to be in play, making it probable that many voters in both parties will turn out. In a few safe states as well, many voters who might otherwise stay home will probably head to the polls.

Four years ago, Gore won Illinois and it’s still predictably blue, and the highly popular Democratic Senate candidate, Barack Obama, should be a big voter draw there.

Bush will surely win Texas (it is the only high-population state that is safely red), but Democrats nevertheless seem to know the importance of the overall popular vote. They are making an organized effort to turn their supporters out (


We could find no similar high-profile get-out-the-vote efforts for Bush in the two big blue states.

Americans should certainly hope that none of the vote-counting problems of 2000 recur. But they also ought to hope that the popular vote winner and the electoral college victor are one and the same this time. Especially in wartime, a true mandate is important. So, wherever you live, your vote in this election will matter on Nov. 2.