Winner Takes All, Voters Don’t Show: An Examination of the Electoral College and Voter Turnout

A MULTI-YEAR INTEREST 

For East Central University junior Ruth Herman, voting is about more than just aligning with one political party over another; it’s about the privilege of having a voice in the decisions surrounding our country. As a double major in counseling (with an emphasis in services to the deaf) and political science, it’s no surprise that Ruth is concerned with representation when it comes to political decision-making. 

“When I was about 13 or 14, I started speech and debate,” Ruth says. In many ways, Ruth credits her time in competitive speech and debate in forming her passion for political science. But when she was a few years into her time in speech and debate, Ruth’s eyes were opened to the topic that would carry her through college and an independent research study.

“There are certain aspects of political science I am really interested in, but electoral science has definitely been one of those that I’ve carried with me since I was about 15.” 

It was this year in speech and debate when Ruth uncovered a condition of the electoral college – the “winner takes all” mechanism – which raised the question in her mind, how does this all impact voter turnout? Several years later, Ruth decided to take the foundation she had laid in high school and build upon it to create the next tier in her research journey. 

WINNER TAKES ALL 

The primary research question that Ruth set out to answer though started out with a broader brush stroke. She asked instead, what causes voter turnout when it comes to the electoral college? 

Building off the secondary research she conducted on this topic in high school, Ruth began diving into extensive research, looking closely at both secondary sources for a literature review, and specifically her own primary research. 

“I went through the New York Times and government forums to see what was the percentage of the state’s population that voted,” Ruth says. Despite the myriad of variables involved, Ruth accounted for as many as she could in her research, even considering the disparities that exist when comparing different election years against each other. 

“The two things I primarily looked at were the percentage of the population who turned out to vote and the differences in who voted for what,” Ruth says. Ruth compared states that had very close splits between Republicans and Democrats, and then she used that metric to determine which were true battleground states. 

And as Ruth analyzed these states and their numbers, her hypothesis was confirmed. 

“I wanted to kind of make an assertion about the closer the battleground state, the higher the voter turnout,” Ruth says. “A lot of people ask, “Why should I vote if my state’s votes are going to be 100% Republican or 100% Democrat?’” Ruth explains. 

She began to uncover that many blame this “all or nothing” mentality on the electoral college, but that the real problem is the winner-take-all mechanism.

Ruth explains that the electoral college is built on a system of balance between the people and the States. So while individuals still vote, the state is allotted a certain number of representatives in the House. However, states are allowed on an individual state-level to determine how they want their votes allocated. Most states opt for the winner-take-all allocation, which can give the states more power at a national level, but often leave many voices unheard on an individual level. 

So what is the winner-take-all mechanism? As Ruth explains it, it’s a mechanism as old as the electoral college itself, that stipulates that either the majority of individual votes or the plurality of individual votes will get 100% of the electoral votes for the state.

“Take for example the 2016 election, if 51% of the state’s population voted for Hillary Clinton, 100% of the electoral votes would go to Hillary Clinton and nobody who voted against her would be represented on the national level. Likewise, if 51% of the population voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, 100% of the votes went to Donald Trump,” Ruth explains. “In some states it’s even worse when they allocate a plurality of the vote. A plurality is the most votes out of everybody who’s running.” 

Ruth realized that this mechanism really privileges a two-party system, as in a plurality allocation, 100% of the electoral votes could hypothetically go to a candidate with less than 50% of the individual votes. Even moreover, Ruth believes this system of allocation has had a profoundly negative impact on voter turnout. 

“In the state of Texas where I’m originally from, there were 38 electoral votes because we have 36 House Representatives and two Senate representatives that go to D.C. But because of the winner-take-all mechanism, we see that we have a decrease in voter turnout on both the Republican and the Democrat side during presidential elections,” Ruth says. “Many Texans think the state is already going to go Republican so their vote doesn’t matter. That’s why unless you see a state as a battleground state or a swing state, you really don’t see a lot of variation in voter turnout levels.”

A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM  

Ruth did uncover in her research that some states, specifically Maine and Nebraska, actually employ a district allocation to increase voter turnout. In this system the state divides up into districts to tally and assign electoral college votes. In both Maine and Nebraska the voter turnout has been higher than the average voter turnout consistently in the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections.

“My question is could this minor or major reform to the electoral college actually benefit voter turnout?” Ruth asked. 

“The fact is that state’s rights tend to create this impossible situation where the states want as much power as possible within presidential elections,” Ruth explains. “If States were willing to put aside their pride essentially and say, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for our people,” we are going to see an increase in voter turnout or at least a shock to the system enough that within the next few presidential elections, you see an increase in turnout.”

Ruth’s advocacy for a change in the way electoral votes are allocated is born from her mindset that this is a relevant and pressing issue for our states and our nation. She says that if states want to increase their voter population, they can revisit their allocation system. And ultimately, she wants everyone to use their power and privilege to vote, regardless of what they expect the electoral college outcome to be.

She cites the recent Texas election where Beto O’Rourke almost beat out Ted Cruz for the Senate position, despite Texas’ long lasting reputation for being red. Ruth notes voting does indeed have the power to flip even the most deeply held state parties, and it’s worth showing up to vote to contribute.

“Go vote. It doesn’t matter what party I think you should vote for. The point is the electoral college system was literally created for there to be an increase in voter participation,” Ruth says. “And if we don’t have that voter turnout, then we’re really losing out on having so many voices heard. In the end we need people to turn out to vote. We need people to show up and be politically active.”

Ruth also encourages individuals to consider who they want to vote in as their state representatives and legislators and to consider how they’re decision-making impacts your daily life. She also hopes that the research on the allocation of electoral college votes will continue to make way for the best possible system.

“No matter what system we choose, the goal is to determine what is the best effective means to safely increase the voter turnout, to increase voter efficacy, and try to create a more politically engaged society.” 

IN THE COMING YEARS

In sculpting this project for her independent research study and the Alpha Chi convention, Ruth knew that she would be strategically laying the foundation for her senior thesis project. 

“This year I focused on the variables from a national, systemic level,” Ruth says. “I’m asking, ‘What have we done that prevents people from turning out to vote, psychologically speaking?’”

After all, one of the reasons Ruth has chosen to continue pursuing study and a career in political science is most directly tied to her desire to see the voices of underrepresented populations amplified. With her second major and emphasis in services to the deaf, Ruth sees a very direct intersection between her two majors.

“I don’t represent the deaf, but I would love to serve them,” Ruth says. One of the primary ways she sees herself serving the deaf community is to encourage voter turnout and therefore representation for the deaf community in state and national decision making. 

“That’s partially why my senior thesis will be on the variables of deaf voter turnout, because there is no research on specifically the deaf community,” Ruth explains. Her senior project marries two of her passions seamlessly while providing real-world research that can be used to better serve underrepresented populations.

After graduating from East Central University in the upcoming year, Ruth wants to pursue her master’s degree and continue researching the electoral college. 

“I don’t think there are enough people working in that field,” she says. “And I want to open the door to allow for more individuals to be politically active.”