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Ensure that every vote counts

John R. Koza // Published November 30, 2008 in Times Union

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting."
— Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

Even before television anchors officially declared Barack Obama the winner of the 2008 presidential election, pundits and ordinary citizens alike seemed ready to pronounce 2008 as the year of record voter turnout. Not only was turnout projected to be a record among African-American voters, but it seemed turnout would break all time records for Latinos, women, youth — almost every demographic group.

And in New York, a state in which this historic presidential election was sharing the stage with a state Senate on the verge of flipping Democratic for the first time in decades, and a number of hotly contested congressional races?

Well, based on results from Election Day, a smaller percentage of New Yorkers turned out to vote than in 2004, a decline in turnout that was consistent with other non-battleground states.

Voter turnout statistics tell the story. States that lost their battleground status since 2004 (Maine, West Virginia, Wisconsin) saw lower turnout. Conversely, the largest turnout rate increases compared to those in 2004 were experienced in states that shifted into battleground status in this year's election, such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

It seems clear that when a state is safely in one camp or the other, not only is it a certainty that candidates will virtually ignore that state, but there is also less incentive for those voters to participate in elections. Every vote, no matter where it's from, should count equally and everyone should feel their participation makes a difference.

The shortcomings of the current system stem from the winner-take-all rule that awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state. That process will occur in New York and other states on Dec. 15. Presidential elections have become geared toward a handful of all-powerful swing or battleground states while states that are firmly in the "D" or "R" column are completely disregarded. Presidential candidates wouldn't dare waste their time campaigning in New York or Texas (or the other 30 plus "safe" states) — except of course to collect money that allows them to run television ads — in other states, that is. This means that voters in two thirds of the states are virtually ignored in presidential elections.

How will New York's voice be heard, our issues addressed and our votes counted in a meaningful way? The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide, making every vote, not just those cast in battle ground states, matter.

Already enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland, the bill would take effect only when passed, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes — that is, enough electoral votes to elect a president (270 of 538). When the bill is passed in a group of states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all of the electoral votes from those states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia.)

Endorsed by The New York Times and the NAACP, the National Popular Vote bill (A3883/S7582) is being considered by the New York state Legislature. It would achieve the goal of ensuring that every American is heard by guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who amasses the most votes nationwide — a prospect that could be made a reality as soon as the 2012 election cycle.

John R. Koza is a consulting professor in the Biomedical Informatics Program in the Department of Medicine and in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. He is a co-author of the book "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote."