I recently saw an episode of "Adam Ruins Everything"* discussing whether individual votes count. Now, in part, this was the usual post election nonsense trying to denigrate the electoral college as an "antidemocratic anachronism" and all the other common complaints, but in another sense, it was an effort to argue that, despite the common claim "every vote counts", to argue individual votes do not make a difference. And, I suppose if one is predisposed to seeing elections in the terms used by the show, it makes sense, but as I hope to show, the assumptions sued in the arguments by this show (and elsewhere) are just not right.
Now, what does it mean for your vote to "count"? Sadly, it seems in our modern, narcissistic age, this has often come to mean, "could my single vote sway an election?" And, to prove this is not the case, all those arguing against the importance of voting need do is show how infrequently the margin of victory is more than one. Fortunately, that silliness is not yet a majority position, so more often we see two other arguments. First, the argument that, despite winning the popular vote, various people lost the electoral college, thus somehow claiming to demonstrate individual votes don't count. Or else the argument will be made that various states have always gone to this or that party, or that incumbents win with such and such a percentage, and thus individual votes don't count.
However, all of those claims are nonsense.
Let us first look at the electoral college. Some sports have rules establishing rankings and playoff positions where rank is based not just on wins and losses, but on points scored. In such situations, it is completely possible for the top ranked team to have fewer wins than a lower ranked team, yet do we then claim it does not matter how anyone played in those games? Of course not! Similarly, though the electoral college means winning the popular vote does not equal presidential victory, it still depends on individual votes to assign those electoral votes, and thus, every vote still counts, even if the results of popular vote and electoral vote differ.
The second argument is equally foolish. First, because even if a given side wins more frequently, those times when they do lose, were there fewer opposition votes, those defeats may not have taken place. Second, and more significantly, even if X always loses, if Y wins by a small margin, it gives Y less certainty in the exercise of power than were Y to win by a larger one. Some dismiss this argument, as they think politicians routinely disregard this factor, but it is not so. If I win by 80% of the vote, I am comfortable I can lose a large segment of my support and still secure reelection (or election for my successor). On the other hand, if I win by only a few percentage points, I am well aware I am living on borrowed time and need to take into account not just my base, but those who opposed me, since I may need to pick up a few new voters to be reelected. Thus, even if you side always loses in a given election, say for your state's senators, your vote can still effect how that senator will govern.
A somewhat more sophisticated final argument, though no less foolish, is founded on the electoral college once again. (And is part and parcel of the many efforts to eliminate this most visible remnant of federalism**) This argument is that, thanks to differing numbers of voters determining the assignment of individual electors (states with 3 electors having fewer voters per elector than the largest states, for example), shows that individual votes don't have the same value. Now, first of all, this in no way shows individual votes "don't matter", just that in one limited sense votes count differently. On the other hand, by completely failing to understand the purpose of the electoral college, and the whole idea of federalism, this argument makes itself complete nonsense. Of course individual votes may have differing effects on electoral representation, that is inherent in using electors, not popular vote. Does that make the election invalid? Nonsense!
Allow me to offer a counter example. If you live in Baltimore City, there are hundreds of thousands of voters deciding local issues, and thus your vote is only a tiny voice. if you live in a much less populous county, your county might have 10s of thousands of voters, making your voice count ten times more. Or, in laws that are decided in townships, where there are only hundreds of voters, your voice counts thousands of times more. Does that mean the votes are invalid, since township voters are more powerful than city voters in local affairs?
Well, the electoral college is much the same. Electors are assigned by state, and each state is assured at least three electors. So, in states with a small number of citizens, the votes will count for more electoral representation than in larger states. The same is true in all state matters. But does that in any way make the presidential elections based on those state votes invalid? Of course not.
So, yes, your vote does count. Is it likely to be the single deciding vote? Not unless you are discussing a family decision where to eat or what the vacation should be this year. It is rare even for small local elections to be decided by a single vote. On the other hand, your vote can be one of those hundreds or thousands that do decide the election, and, even if it is not you alone deciding, you are still part of that decision. And so, in any sense that I can that is meaningful, yes individual votes count.
* This show is something of a mixed bag, some of the statements are correct, some are judgment calls, and some seem rather dubious or exaggerated. Like many "fact check" sites (eg PolitiFact or Snopes) it seems best at cut and dried purely factual issues and seems to falter whenever there are multiple opinions or judgment calls to be made. Unlike PolitiFact that tends to break left whenever there is uncertainty, Adam seems to favor the "revisionist" or contrarian position whenever there is wiggle room. In addition, even on facts, there is a degree of cherry picking and exaggeration. Thus, I have a feeling, I will be mentioning this show again. (The show also seems to have not learned the Snopes lesson of admitting when things are unclear. Snopes wins a lot of points from me for admitting when something is impossible to decide with certainty, while Adam and others seem to favor a singular answer, even when it is difficult to support choosing one over others.)
** Federalism seems to be one of the most maligned beliefs we have left. As I argue in "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction" and "The Civil War". Then again, I believe it is also one of the most direct means of restoring limited government as well. (Cf "Minimal Reforms")