A Swing (State) or a Miss:  Why the Electoral College is Bad for Oklahoma

(And Any State Not Among the Few Remaining “Purple” States)

Hear me out.  It isn’t the state of Oklahoma that votes…it’s each one of us, as individual citizens who happen to live in the state.  And because of the “winner take all” approach to the Electoral College, every Oklahoman’s vote — each person’s voice — for President is weakened – Republican, Democrat, or Independent. It’s as if all Oklahomans (well the 1.5 million or so who get to the polls, based on 2016 numbers) get one chance at the microphone on election day, and we shout together to see who gets heard. Why don’t we each get our chance at the microphone?

I certainly don’t believe this is reason to despair, but I do think it’s a reason to work for change. The Presidential vote is the only election that works this way, and it’s simply no longer needed. We are not a loosely grouped set of states vying for power independently; federal law affects us all as individuals, thus federal elections should be a direct vote. Further, no state is a homogenous block of voters with identical hopes and needs within state lines.

While the notion that the Electoral College protects rural voters or low population states is prevalent, it isn’t accurate. David Litt (2019) writes, “The country’s 10 most urban states (a list that includes not just California and Florida, but low-population states like Utah and Nevada) have 107 electoral votes. If strength in the Electoral College were all that stood between rural voters and political powerlessness, rural voters would be in serious trouble.” A similar pattern holds for high population vs. low population states. If anything, the electoral college obscures votes from all states. But it’s all the more problematic in terms of the focus on voters in states like ours that tip heavily toward either party.

It is as clear, statistically, as any prediction can be, that our state will be going to any Republican running for president for the foreseeable future; Nate Silver’s Five Thirty-Eight has Oklahoma with a greater than 99% chance of going Republican in this November’s election for the Presidency. With tight campaign budgets and limited time, not only do Democratic candidates for President for the most part ignore our state when campaigning, so do Republicans. Yes, I know recently there was a rally here, but Oklahoma was not the first choice for that event…we were just available, like the second choice for a prom date because the first choice’s governor called to say they’d be “washing their hair” that evening.  Or washing their hands might be more apt this year, but I digress.

By contrast, imagine if Presidential candidates knew they had to work to get every vote they could in Oklahoma because each one as an individual ballot cast went to their candidate directly (rather than being tallied to see how the state’s seven Electoral votes tipped). Imagine if they had to work hard not only on winning people over, but on making sure to focus “get out the vote” efforts here and working to make sure that every Oklahoman knew that the candidate would meet our needs.  Only then would Presidential candidates be forced to take our state’s citizens’ needs more into account—and ultimately, for the victor, consider our needs as they govern. 

As it is now, we have those seven electoral votes, for which the outcome is already rather clear.  This spurs campaigns of both major parties to spend their money, their time, and most importantly their focus/attention elsewhere no matter who the candidates are. No one is asking what we need. Oklahoma’s electoral votes are considered a “given” either for or against the candidate depending on which of the two major parties is taking a look at our state. 

As we’ve become more and more geographically sorted by political party (see Bishop’s The Big Sort), each of our votes as Oklahomans for the presidency have actually been increasingly watered down thanks to the Electoral College. “Sixty years ago, your odds of living in a swing state were better than 50-50.  Today they’re less than one in four” (Litt, 2020, p. 183), making it that much harder for each voter to move the needle on the outcome of the race nationally.

While most recently the Electoral College has happened to help out Republican candidates, the historical record shows us that is not always the case.  Not only is it “unfair to the ever growing number of voters who don’t live in swing states, but its effects are basically random” (Litt, 2020, p. 186).  Since 1980, the Electoral College has advantaged Democrats just as often as it has Republicans. 

Further, in a very red state like Oklahoma, eliminating the Electoral College could even considerably help Republicans on down ballot candidates and issues on state questions.  While it’s true that people in both parties are less likely to feel a sense of urgency due to the structure of the Electoral College and its “winner take all” approach that OK and most states take, I would be curious to see if the dampening of turnout were even greater in the majority party in states that heavily favor one party, with voters very confident that their candidate for the Presidency is sure to knock it out of the park.   

Higher than average turnout in NE and ME could suggest that splitting Electoral College votes might also increase overall voter turnout; however, I’d favor simply eliminating the Electoral College altogether.  We no longer need someone to represent us at the polling place; I can travel there without difficulty, and I’d rather no one else speak for me if it’s all the same. In a national election, I’m concerned with my whole country, my family, and my community — my state isn’t in a vacuum that operates independently — and my vote shouldn’t be treated that way, nor should yours, no matter your party affiliation.  

The bottom line for me is that the Executive is never forced by the power of each of our votes to ask “How will this decision impact the people of Oklahoma?” because the outcome of our vote each and every time for the Presidency (at least for the foreseeable future) is a foregone conclusion.  Don’t we as Oklahomans want to be courted even just a little?  We may not be a swing state, but I’m tired of our voices being missed.  Too often, we’re not even considered when campaigns are planning their pitch. 

For more info on the myth around the Electoral College and rural votes across the country, check out David Litt’s article here (https://time.com/5863481/supreme-court-faithless-electors-electoral-college/) or his book Democracy in One Book or Less.

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