Many of you are eligible to vote for the first time in this election. I want to take a moment today to encourage you to vote and give you a quick, non-partisan introduction to Presidential elections.

Martyrs for Voting

Consider the following.

In short: people died to make sure that you have the right to vote.

However, no more than 60% of eligible US citizens actually vote. Those who do vote are disproportionately white and old. Among people in your age group, 18-24 years old, only 41% of men and 47% of women who are eligible actually vote. Among people in my age group, 45-54 years old, it’s 60% of men and 64% of women. Nationally, 64% of white Americans vote, while 60% of African-Americans, 32% of Asian-Americans, and 31% of Hispanics/Latinos vote.

Now, the members of my immediate family and I are Democrats. However, my family of origin—including my father, mother, siblings, and in-laws—are staunchly Republican, and that doesn’t change an iota how much I love them. So I don’t judge you based on whom you vote for, and I’m not telling you how to vote: but if you haven’t already registered to vote, do it! And when Election Day comes, go vote! Don’t disrespect the sacrifice of those who fought and died for your right to vote!

Election Basics

I have discovered that many people, including some college graduates, don’t understand how the President is elected.  The President of the US is selected by the Electoral College.  In almost all states, if you win the most in the popular vote in the state, you get all of the Electoral College votes from that state. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions, and select electors by popular vote within each congressional district, so it is possible for candidates to divide up the electoral votes in those states.)

Because of this system, it is mathematically possible for someone to win the Electoral College (and the Presidency) while losing the popular vote by a small margin. This most recently happened in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore. This is unusual, though, and the popular vote in each state determines who gets the Electoral College vote, so your vote matters.

A number of states are considered “safe” for one party or another in the Presidential race. Some states have gone Democratic in six out of the last six Presidential elections (like California), while others have gone six-for-six Republican (like Texas). Now, if you add up the Electoral College votes that are apparently “safe” for Republicans, you get 102; however, Democrats have 242 safe electoral votes. You only need 270 to win the election. Consequently (as Republican strategists sadly admit) the Democrats have a strong advantage going into a Presidential election.

Republicans can (and sometimes have) overcome this disadvantage, but when they do the vote is close. In 2000, the popular vote separating the Democratic and Republican candidates was less than 0.5%. In fact, if less than 1,000 voters in Florida had voted differently, Gore would have beaten Bush. So if you are a Democrat, you want to make sure that Democratic dominance at the Presidential level continues, while if you are a Republican, you need to get out to win those narrow victories.

But why should you vote if you live in a “safe” state? First, you are not just voting for the President: you are also voting for a senator and a representative. These “down ballot” elections are crucial to determining whether the President has a Congress that will cooperate with him or her. Second, states don’t always stay safe. Most southern states are solidly Republican now, but they used to be reliably Democratic. In addition, even if all you do is help to push your state close to being a swing state, you will force the opposition candidate to spend time and money keeping your state safe; these are resources that the opposition could have spent in a swing state.

It’s also important to remember to vote in midterm elections (elections for the House and Senate held in years that are not Presidential election years). Although Democrats have an initial electoral edge at the Presidential level, both houses of Congress are currently controlled by Republicans. An important reason for this is that Republicans are more likely to show up and vote for midterm elections than are Democrats. If you are a Republican, you should go and vote in midterm elections to make sure your party keeps control of the House and Senate; if you are a Democrat, you should show up for the midterm elections to break Republican dominance.

I’m focusing on the two major parties, but there are often significant third-party candidates, like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in this election. Generally, no one expects the third-party candidate to win, but they have sometimes been a “spoiler,” drawing enough votes away from one candidate to give the election to the other major party candidate. For example, in 2000, Ralph Nader ran as a candidate for the Green Party and got some votes that probably would have been cast for Gore had Nader not run. This helped tip the election to Bush. Of course, I am not telling you to avoid voting for a third party candidate. You need to decide for yourself how to weigh the quality of the third-party candidates, the details of each party’s platform, and the importance of solidarity against a common opponent.

Getting More Invested

On election night, I recommend that (after you have voted) you get together with your friends for a viewing party. If you are conservative, you might enjoy watching the election on Fox News; if you are liberal, you will likely prefer MSNBC. CNN seems too liberal to most conservatives and too conservative to most liberals, so they’re probably doing a reasonable job of being moderate, if you prefer middle-of-the-road commentators.

Here is a key thing to look for on election night. The states that are not safe are called “swing states,” because in some elections they go Democratic and in some elections they go Republican. The two most important swing states are probably Ohio and Florida, because each has a lot of electoral votes. Because of the Democratic lead in safe states, Republican Presidential candidates almost have to win both Ohio and Florida in order to even have a chance. So if either Ohio or Florida goes Democratic, you can expect the commentators covering the election to drop hints that the election is almost decided. However, if the Republican candidate wins both Ohio and Florida, the election is still really up for grabs.

If you feel uninformed about the candidates, it is easy to find information and opinions about them online. Each of them has a webpage with descriptions of their qualifications and platforms:  Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson. You can also watch the televised debates. If you want to bone up on the issues, and want to read something from a conservative political perspective, I recommend, Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots) by Matt Lewis. To balance it out with a liberal perspective, read James Carville, We’re Still Right, They’re Still Wrong: The Democrats’ Case for 2016.

How to Register

Where I live, in New York State, the deadline to register to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election is October 14, and you can download a voter registration form at http://www.elections.ny.gov. Whatever state you live in, you can also register to vote via https://turbovote.org. Either way, do it soon! After you register, call your county’s Board of Elections (find the number online) to confirm that you are on the roll before Election Day!

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

About The Author

Bryan W. Van Norden

Bryan W. Van Norden is a professor of philosophy at Vassar College, and the author of numerous books, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Hackett Publishing, 2011). You can follow him on twitter: @BryanVanNorden. The views expressed in this essay are his own.