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The Shrinking Battleground

by Ryan O'Donnell, Chris Pearson // Published November 1, 2005 in Tom Paine.comMon Sense

Americans elect the leader of the free world. Makes you feel important, right?

Picking the president of the United States is a massive affair. Candidates spend hundred of millions of dollars, engage voters with bus tours, town hall meetings and slick TV ads. As the country endures the dual crises of economic uncertainty and a war in Iraq, the political stakes have been higher than any other time in recent memory. People are making an important decision.

Unfortunately, only people in a few states cast a meaningful vote for president. After all, we know certain states are sure things. Massachusetts is bound to go blue—Utah, red. In closely contested years, that list of spectator states has grown to nearly 40. The drama, focus and spending of elections are reserved for a small club of states that could go either way. If there was ever any doubt, we now have hard data that shows just how distorted our presidential elections have become.

“Battleground state” was a term most Americans heard a lot during the last election, but chances are, your state was not one of them. In 2004, a whopping two-thirds of the states were unabashedly ignored. They didn’t see a TV ad, get a visit from a candidate or experience much, if any, campaign presence. Voters in most of the country had absolutely no chance to air concerns about local issues.

On the other hand, if you were a resident of Ohio, where the Bush and Kerry campaigns, along with PACs, funneled an unprecedented $47 million into TV advertising in October and November alone, or Florida, inundated with $64 million during that period, you might have been tearing your hair out with all the love you got. The safe states, meanwhile, were treated like a cheap date. Their support was firmly banked years in advance. Bush’s campaign may have been the richest in history, but it didn’t waste a dime on polling a single person in some two-thirds of the nation.

Let’s be honest: This is nothing less than a two-tiered system. Some voters have a meaningful say in who becomes president, and some might better satisfy their patriotic urges by staying home and watching “The West Wing” rather than showing up at the polls. The troubling thing is that we’re not just seeing a short-term disparity. We’re witnessing an enduring trend.

FairVote, in its report “The Shrinking Battleground ,” shows how hardening partisan division has slashed the number of competitive states nearly in half over the past 45 years. In 1960, 24 states were in play, representing 319 electoral votes. Today, there are just 13 real battlegrounds heading into 2008, representing only 159 electoral votes. In the final weeks of campaigning, the number of swing states shrinks to low single-digits.

If we look at past presidential elections, we see that state votes have been drifting further and further away from the national vote in close elections. Rather than a close election (like Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960) producing a large number of states with close votes, close elections of today (like 2000 and 2004) produce only a few. Safe states are getting safer, and are less and less likely to matter in the future.

What gives? Consumers get a steady outpour of nifty electronics to satisfy America’s love of new-fangled gadgets. NASA can explore distant galaxies from telescopes attached to satellites and science can grow new tissues in the lab with stem cell technology. But invent a system that listens to all people as we elect the most powerful office in the world? Fuggetaboutit.

Our failure to devise a better system has real implications for America. A shrinking battleground means the debate suffers. Not only are the issues of concern to two-thirds of the country swept under the carpet, but in some cases, entire industries get the brush-off. Maybe Silicon Valley should relocate to Ohio.

The Electoral College is poison for voter turnout. Though participation grew between the last two presidential races, it grew unevenly. In the spectator states, it increased by 2 percent, while it rocketed up by 9 percent in battlegrounds. The difference in participation between young voters in spectator versus battleground states has risen to a disturbing 17percent. That should scare us—civic participation is learned early on, a fact that holds true all over the world. If young people don’t vote within their first three or four presidential elections, they are unlikely to start. Even so, you can’t blame young voters in spectator states for picking up on the fact that their vote is meaningless.

It gets worse. Most African Americans and Latinos live in the South or big states like New York, Illinois or California. Back in the day, these were key swing areas and presidential campaigns paid attention. Today it’s a different story. Under the Electoral College, white people are more likely to live in a battleground state than people of other races. Most states with big racial minority populations are shut out of the process.

If you ask the people, we should change all this. Opinion polls show overwhelming support for direct election of the president that has stayed strong for more than 50 years. Only a national popular election would ensure that voters are heard in every state, and guarantee that America gets a leader responsive to everyone, everywhere in our country. Innovation has always been part of our country’s character. Isn’t it time we figure out a way to expand this battleground?

Chris Pearson is the director of the Presidential Elections Reform program at FairVote--a non-partisan, non-profit election reform group in Washington. Ryan O’Donnell is communications director. For more information, visit fairvote.org/presidential.