I wonder how much my vote really counts for. Please don't misunderstand. I have voted in every primary and general election since the 1960s, when I reached voting age, and I shall continue to vote for as long as I can. But two facts of political life lead me to think that one person, one vote is mostly a myth.
The first is the Electoral College, a chunk of political sausage put into the Constitution at a time when each state thought of itself as a little, independent country. Small states opposed a government where more populous states held more political power. The Senate and the Electoral College were born out of the need to get buy-in from those smaller states.
Since each state has two senators, smaller states are overrepresented in the Electoral College. To see this, consider that Maryland's 6 million citizens have 10 votes in the Electoral College, one for each of its eight congressional representatives and two senators. The six smallest states, with populations totaling around 6 million, have 18 total electoral votes. Smaller states have proportionately more say than larger ones in presidential elections.
Also, swing states with more closely divided electorates get much more attention from presidential candidates than solidly red or blue states. Electoral arithmetic drives both parties to ignore Maryland. Consequently, they don't show much concern for issues of local importance, further reducing the state's political power and the value of your vote and mine. For instance, the Chesapeake Bay is a significant contributor to our area's economic viability. To my knowledge, neither presidential candidate has uttered a single word about the bay's fragile ecology or its economic importance to the region.
The same arithmetic that favors small states over larger ones makes it possible for a president to be elected with a minority of the popular vote. This has happened four times in our past, and there's a fair chance it will happen again this year. If it does, a politically weak president will have problems enacting his agenda and would have no power to break the political logjam that is Congress.
The Electoral College is broken and needs to be fixed or removed from the Constitution, just as the relics of slavery were.
The second way to reduce the value of our vote is gerrymandering congressional districts. The practice of shaping districts to minimize the power of one voting bloc or another is as old as the country. The term goes back to 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbert Gerry signed legislation to create districts that "resembled salamanders," guaranteeing election for members of his party.
A member of Congress representing a safe district has no reason to make common cause with members of the opposing party. In fact, compromise may be dangerous to his political survival. Richard Lugar, a six-term conservative Republican senator from Indiana, lost his primary to an extremist challenger who attacked him for the heinous political sin of seeking consensus with Democrats in the Senate. Safe seats give us loonies like Michele Bachmann and protect scoundrels like Charles Rangel. They also contribute mightily to the vise of gridlock that paralyzes Congress.
But when politicians are accountable to a broader constituency, it's in their interest to serve the public interest rather than politicize everything.
When politicians draw up voting districts, it invariably results in jiggling the map to create safe seats, filled with political ideologues. The 2010 election demonstrated the damage this causes. Independent, nonpartisan committees should be created to draw up geographically compact districts that keep political subdivisions relatively intact. That won't happen on its own. But this year, Question 5 on the Maryland ballot asks voters to affirm or challenge the current redistricting plan. A no vote will force the state to make a new districting map in time for the 2014 election.
This referendum is completely politically motivated, mostly symbolic and doesn't take redistricting out of politicians' hands. But it's also a step in the right direction, one that we should take to make our votes count for something, after all.