Caption: This map, designed by FairVote, displays the geographic composition of 2020 campaign events of the presidential and vice presidential nominees since their conventions through October 8th.
Yet again, America’s presidential election has boiled down to the votes of a handful of battleground states. FairVote’s Presidential Candidate Events Tracker, which analyzes the campaign events of both major-party presidential and vice-presidential nominees since their nominating conventions, has found that almost three-quarters of all 2020 campaign events took place in just six swing states, while 37 states have received no campaign attention at all. This should be no surprise as two-thirds of 2016 campaign events took place in just six states.
This inequity in attention between “safe” and “battleground” states is a consequence of America’s winner-take-all system, whereby almost all states award 100% of their presidential electors to the candidate who wins the plurality of the vote within that state, making it fruitless to campaign in any state that leans too much to either party. In a polarized political environment where more than three-quarters of states have voted for the presidential candidate of the same party for the last twenty years, the interests of millions of Republican voters in the state of New York or Democratic voters in the state of Mississippi are not worth listening to when their votes cannot swing their state’s election. The ultimate effect of this system is that, election after election, the attention of America’s presidential candidates is not on all voters but rather exclusively on voters in battleground states that can swing the Electoral College in their favor.
Voters in the 2020 “safe states” might hope that their political competitiveness will shift over the next few years such that they attract more attention in future presidential elections, but the presidential campaign visits so far demonstrate that the battleground state designation can be “sticky” and slow to change. The battleground states that have received at least two presidential campaign visits during the 2020 election cycle align almost exactly with the 10 states that were within a 4% margin in the 2016 presidential race. The only exceptions to this rule are Ohio, which Trump won by about 8% in 2016 but was a perennial battleground as recently as 2012, and Maine, which Clinton won by roughly 3% in 2016 but is not as competitive this cycle, based on public polling and campaign visits.
The pernicious effect of the winner-take-all system is not limited to presidential elections. It also applies to America’s House elections, whereby each district elects a single winner with the plurality of the vote. An analysis by FairVote revealed that 80 percent of House districts are “safe” districts locked down by one major-party that do not see competitive elections or significant campaign attention. America’s districts are so uncompetitive that FairVote has been able to predict the winner of 5 in 6 House races with more than 99 percent accuracy for the last decade looking only at past election results and incumbency. This lack of competition is fueled by a winner-take-all system that, combined with high levels of partisanship, rewards the candidate of each district’s preferred party while allowing representatives to effectively evade accountability. District partnership is the single strongest predictor of U.S. House election outcomes, more so than any nonpartisan factor such as voting records or campaign spending, resulting in a system where, before the 2018 midterm elections, more than nine in ten House districts had a representative that matched their favored national political party.
For voters, the effect of the winner-take-all system is a House of Representatives that is not truly representative. Independent voters and voters of the opposite major-party of a district’s partisan lean receive virtually no campaign attention from their representative in the vast majority of districts, making their voices and votes effectively silenced. The task of keeping representatives accountable often then falls to highly partisan and low-turnout primaries that further skew the representation of the district.
Thankfully, this unfair and unrepresentative winner-take-all system does not have to be America’s future. Among the world’s 35 major and well-established democracies, just three (the U.S., Ghana, and Canada) use a winner-take-all system for all national and legislative elections. Systems of proportional representation with multi-winner districts, as proposed in the United States by the Fair Representation Act, would award the number of seats to each political party in proportion to the votes cast for them. Such a system allows groups of voters to gain representation without “winning” the most votes of any single district while ensuring robust competition across the country. Given America’s failure to adequately represent the will of its citizens, it is time that we follow the example of the rest of the world and introduce a more proportional and fair electoral system.