I spent about an hour over the weekend filling out my ballot for the 2020 general election. As an immigrant from a country where elections were not free until 1994, I understand the privilege of the franchise. Every two years, when it’s time to vote in national elections, I rip open my voting packet with a sense of sacred, nerdy seriousness. I’ll even study the positions of the candidates for school board. But that feeling never lasts; by the time I finish filling in all the bubbles, I am bitter and angry, weighed down by the pointlessness of the whole exercise.
Like more than 100 million other Americans, I live in one of the dozens of states that do not really matter in determining the makeup of our national government. Because I’m in California, the country’s most populous state and its biggest economy, my vote in The Most Important Presidential Election of Our Lifetime is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.
The roots of my despair are well known. There is the Senate, which gives all states equal representation regardless of population, so voters in Wyoming, the least populous state, effectively enjoy almost 70 times more voting power than us chopped-liver Californians. And there is the winner-takes-all Electoral College, in which a tiny margin of victory pays off, with the whole pot of electoral votes going to the winner. This means that millions of presidential votes, from both Republicans and Democrats, are effectively wasted — all the votes cast for the loser in each state and all the excess ones cast for the winner.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in California by more than 4 million votes. But in our bizarre system, Clinton’s 4 million Californians were ignored, superseded by the 80,000 voters who gave Trump the narrow margin he needed to win in three other states, and he became president.
I am not here to argue over the merits of these rules. (For that, read my colleague Jesse Wegman’s recent book, which makes the definitive case against the Electoral College.) Fights over the Constitution’s anti-majoritarian provisions tend toward tedium; one side painstakingly explains how the rules are unfair, the other side insists that the unfairness is actually very wise and by design, and then they go back and forth until oblivion.
But I would like to speak up for all of us scorned voters, especially my 40 million fellow Californians, who are watching the 2020 election sail by like a derelict oil tanker passing under the Golden Gate. All we can do is hope it doesn’t blow up in our faces; otherwise, we have little say over the matter.
I have voted in every federal election since 2000, and not once do I remember a presidential candidate ever making an effort to get my vote. This year, I feel worse than ever. Though I am as stressed out as anyone about the outcome, the election often seems to be happening in some other country, where the voters live different lives from me, the candidates don’t care about the issues that matter to me and the only time a candidate reaches out is for my credit card number.
We have had a tough time lately in the Golden State. You might have heard. Beyond the pandemic — nearly 1 million Californians have been infected by the coronavirus, and more than 16,000 have died — millions of Californians have had to endure months of raging wildfires and extremely unhealthy air quality.
Climate change-related disasters have compounded our other entrenched problems of livability: housing costs that eat up paychecks, an epidemic of homelessness that seems to defy all attempts to fix it, one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and the growing sense that only the very wealthy can afford to live in many of our largest cities.
These issues are not California’s alone: There are similar problems in other states' big cities, among them Seattle, Portland, New York and Chicago. You might even say that these urban issues constitute a kind of national problem. But neither Joe Biden nor Trump dwell much on them, because they aren’t the problems of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania or Florida.
Every two years, I think about how thoroughly I am being ignored, and each time I’m more infuriated than the last. Twice in my lifetime, the loser of the national popular vote has won the presidency. The same injustice might happen again this year. But even if it doesn’t, don’t conclude that all is well and good with the way we pick the president.
Consider last week’s debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. By my count, the candidates mentioned fracking — an issue of environmental and economic importance in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the most prized battlegrounds — 10 times. First, Pence accused Biden of wanting to ban fracking, then Harris said Biden would never ban fracking, then Pence said he would, then Harris said he wouldn’t, the whole argument very much like the one my kids have over who gets to take a shower second.
By comparison, the wildfires that set ablaze the western United States last month received only glancing mention — and it was Susan Page, the moderator, rather than Harris, California’s junior senator, who brought them up. Page mightn’t have bothered. When Pence was asked about the fires and other climate disasters, he ended his answer by insisting that Biden would ban fracking.
It wasn’t just fracking over fires. In both the vice-presidential and the presidential debates, nobody mentioned housing or homelessness, a top policy issue for people in my state. There was barely a mention of building new roads, bridges or expanding public transportation — Harris raised the issue mainly to take a shot at how Trump has turned his plan for “infrastructure week” into a joke.
Then, of course, there is the Supreme Court nomination that Republicans are ramming through the Senate. Because Republicans derive much of their political strength from many small states, the Senate amplifies their power; as CNN’s Ronald Brownstein pointed out last month, the 47 Democratic senators represent nearly 169 million people, more than the 158 million people represented by the Senate’s 53 Republicans.
If Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is confirmed along partisan lines, the Supreme Court will cross “an undemocratic milestone,” as Adam Cole pointed out in Vox. For the first time, “a controlling majority of the court will have been put there by senators whom most voters didn’t choose.”
It boils my blood, all of it. Is it any wonder that the United States has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout among developed nations? The system is corrosive. We are told by everyone, everywhere, that voting is the path toward a better country, but in every election, we are shown that some votes matter much more than others, and that we should all just live with it, because smart people a long time ago decided it should be so.
I still vote. I do it out of a sense of civic duty and as a role model to my children, and to make sure I can get the NIMBYs off the City Council. But when it comes to the national government, I long ago gave up any hope of ever mattering.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.