Why Voting Matters

Joshua Bedell

With just one night until Election Day, many of us are ready to tune out. And if you haven’t voted yet, it could be easy to assume that your vote won’t make a difference.

Every vote does count. To reinforce that point, a wide range of public figures and organizations across music (Pearl Jam to Taylor Swift), sports (Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association), and business (Time to Vote, Business Roundtable) have encouraged and supported voting among their fans and employees.

Voting is more than a symbolic exercise. It can have an actual impact on the lives of our families, friends, and communities. Here’s how.

There is much more than the presidency at stake.

While there’s understandable focus on the presidency — it sometimes feels like Trump-Pence vs Biden-Harris is the only contest on the docket — there are highly consequential matchups further down each ballot.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, there is a desperate need for thoughtful, action-oriented public servants at all levels of government — elections provide us with the opportunity to help decide who they are.

For example, all members of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election every two years. The U.S. House of Representatives has exclusive power to implement bills that impose taxes. Those taxes fund federal initiatives such as national defense, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e., SNAP or “food stamps”), and Medicare.

While national politics account for an increasing majority of our news consumption, state and local governments actually represent a substantially higher share of economic output than the federal government. According to the Brookings Institute, government contributions (which adjust for transfers among branches of government) to 2017 GDP were 6.5 percent at the federal level and 10.8 percent at the state and local levels (i.e., state and local spending was 66 percent higher than federal spending after adjusting for transfers). State and local governments use their dollars to support a wide range of programs including education, hospitals, safety (e.g., police and fire departments), and public transportation.

How our state and local tax dollars are deployed

Source: Brookings Institution

Given the importance of state and local government to our daily wellbeing, it’s worth learning who’s on your ballot, their track record, and how they plan to govern, including the ways they’ll allocate tax dollars and other public resources.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, there is a desperate need for thoughtful, action-oriented public servants at all levels of government — elections provide us with the opportunity to help decide who they are.

Polls can be wildly off.

Of course, your preferred candidate(s) may appear substantially ahead (or behind) in the polls, the closest thing we have to a scoreboard in politics. While quality polls are based on scientific methods, they nonetheless remain largely dependent on randomized, operator-assisted telephone calls to obtain the data that feeds their prediction models.

The digital age has made polling harder and less accurate. When landlines were our only telephone option, it was easier for pollsters to capture a representative sample of the population. The creation of caller ID began to reduce response rates, as people had a simple way to ignore a pollster’s call. Telemarketing and robocalls accelerated this trend, leading to a long-term decline in response rates. Even when someone does answer, the portability of cell phone numbers has made it challenging for pollsters to know where someone truly resides (critical for predicting the outcome in “battleground states”); an estimated 10% of U.S. adults have a cell phone number from another state. Other hurdles include estimating turnout, measuring race and ethnicity across an increasingly multicultural electorate, and self-censorship.

Response rates for phone polls

Source: Pew Research

Here’s a quick thought experiment: when was the last time that you answered a phone call from an unknown number? If you did, imagine that the caller asked if you would answer a series of questions about your voting habits. How long would you have spent answering these questions? Would any of your friends or people whose opinions you respect answer the questions? Now imagine a room filled with only the types of people who do answer random calls and, after answering, openly discuss their voting preferences with a stranger. How much should you trust a poll that turned these answers into predictions for the entire population?

A scene from Star Wars, or the people who speak with pollsters?

Source: Lucasfilm

Due to these growing obstacles, Gallup, a respected pollster that had been forecasting presidential elections since 1936, stopped predicting presidential races in 2015. Perhaps the other polling organizations should have followed suit. As noted in The New Yorker, “Nearly every major polling outfit miscalled the 2016 presidential race.” It’s worth considering this fact the next time you see a news story indicating that a candidate is ahead or behind. The scoreboard may be significantly wrong and your vote may count more than you think.

The improbable happens.

In 2017, a Virginia House of Delegates election ended in tie, with each candidate receiving 11,608 votes. After a series of recounts and court review, the winner was selected in a drawing. Each candidate’s name was placed in a film canister, which were then placed in a bowl, from which one name was selected. (Other options included flipping a coin or drawing straws.) The Republican candidate was chosen, preserving a 51–49 Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates. Had the Democratic candidate’s name been drawn from the bowl instead, there would have been a 50–50 Republican-Democrat split, which would have led to a power sharing agreement between the two parties (vs Republican control).

2017 Virginia House of Representatives drawing

Source: CNN

Thus, in a state with 8.464 million residents, control of the Virginia House of Delegates was decided by a single vote. While this outcome was improbable, it wasn’t unusual; over the years hundreds of elections have ended in a tie orbeen decided by razor thin margins.

Selected close elections

Sources: NPR, Boston.com, New York Times, ourcampaigns.com, The Wall Street Journal

Please make a point to vote.

The outcome of elections at the national, state, and local levels will affect our quality of life and our communities.

As we’ve seen, while it’s unlikely, sometimes a single vote can decide a victor. And, even if your candidate loses, a lower margin of victory may encourage the winning candidate to propose bipartisan solutions.

Don’t be like the New England Patriots fans who were fortunate enough to attend the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history but left early because they assumed the game was over. We’re at the end of the fourth quarter — it’s time for each and every one of us to step up and vote. You never know what might happen.

Joshua Bedell is Head of Strategic Ventures, Verisk Financial and Member, CSPC Commission on Civility and Effective Governance

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CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges

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CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges

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