Your vote is a terrible thing to waste.
That lesson was demonstrated 16 years ago, when his contested margin of 537 votes in Florida made George W. Bush president of the United States.
From that came the invasion of Iraq and the present turmoil and bloodshed in the Middle East, the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito and much else that Al Gore would not likely have done.
It could be said, though that those 537 votes were less responsible than the 138,067 votes that were wasted on 12 candidates who didn’t have even a remote chance to become president.
Yes, there were many times as many Floridians who never showed up. But that happens in every election. Here, we’re talking about people who deliberately threw their votes away. Some did so to make a point; others were simply clueless.
Ralph Nader got 97,488 of their votes to run a far distant third behind Vice President Al Gore. To this day, many people blame Nader for what followed.
But then you could also blame James Harris, the Socialist Workers Party candidate, who polled 562 votes—more than Bush’s margin– or Pat Buchanan, the isolationist, who got 17,481, or the Libertarian ticket that drew some 16,000.
One of my sons voted for Nader. I had tried to persuade him that it wasn’t a good time for exalted idealism.
“Dad,” he said, “this is my first vote. How can you ask me to vote for someone I don’t like?”
I woke him on the morning after with the news that Bush was ahead by the thinnest possible margin.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
In Tallahassee two weeks ago, I met a professional man who said he had voted for Donald Trump in this year’s Florida Republican primary because he didn’t want Jeb Bush to win.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Perhaps Bush would still have won in 2000 had Nader not been on the ballot, but that seems unlikely. Few Floridians who thought Gore wasn’t liberal enough would have preferred Bush.
Now, the polls suggest a possible replay of 2000 — a critically tight race in Florida that could be tipped one way or the other by people who so dislike the major party candidates as to waste their votes on the Libertarian or Green Party tickets.
Some of these may be young, first-time voters, flush with idealism, who want to see the world as they think it ought to be rather than as it is.
But this is the way it is: The next president will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. If you vote for anyone else, or don’t vote at all, you are voting, in effect, for the one who will win.
And Nov. 9, it will be too late to say you’re sorry.
We’d be far, far better off with a runoff system. It would give those idealistic voters two chances: one, to vote with their hearts; two, to help decide which of the plausible candidates actually will win.
A runoff would also be less help to extremist candidates like the current Republican nominee.
A runoff no longer requires a second election. Methods and technology now enable voters to rank their choices. Maine voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to adopt this for their state elections. It would set a wonderful example.
The second great reform we need is to nullify the Electoral College. It was intended to be a bulwark against demagogues and other untrustworthy candidates. As a New York Times headline put it, “Trump is the man the founders feared.”
The firewall fell when Americans soon insisted on choosing the president themselves rather than through surrogates. We’re lucky, perhaps, that it has taken so long to have a nominee who is as unprepared, unfit and unworthy as Trump showed himself to be in the debate Monday night.
But the archaic mechanism of the electoral system remains, dictating that candidates spend virtually all their time and attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. Unsurprisingly, this depresses the turnout nearly everywhere else.
According to data posted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the 2012 turnout of voting-age population averaged nearly 63 percent in 10 swing states but only 54.8 in the others. (Florida’s was 61.37 percent.) Nationally, it was not quite 57 percent.
So far in 2016, half of the post-convention campaign events have been in only four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina. Nearly nine in 10 have been there and in seven other “battleground” states. More than half the states have been ignored; Texas, California, and New York nearly so, except as sources of campaign money.
Repealing the electoral system by constitutional amendment is not a promising option.
There is, however, a practical and simple way to get around it. Under model legislation known as the National Popular Vote agreement, state legislatures would instruct their electors to vote for whomever wins the most votes nationwide. The Constitution gives them that power. The agreement binds those states that adopt it only when enough have done so to account for 270 electoral votes. States representing half that number have already on board.
Had that been in force 16 years ago, Florida’s hanging chads, “butterfly ballot” and infinitesimal margin wouldn’t have mattered. More to the point, Americans almost everywhere else would have been more motivated to vote. And the legitimacy of the outcome would not have remained forever in doubt.
Now, more than ever, is no time for any more wasted votes.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina.