The currency of representative democracy is the vote and, at least in theory, we all have the same amount of electoral dough. You, me, Bill Gates and that bum on the street walk to the polls with the same balance in our democratic checkbooks, free to spend our matching funds of republican capital as we wish.
Well, that’s the theory. In reality, of course, our votes are like the oinkers in Animal Farm. Some votes, like some pigs, are more equal than others. What’s your vote really worth? I’ll get to the specifics, but to start with it depends on where you are and who you are. Geography and political partialities combine to create different markets for votes, and those inequalities create arbitrage opportunities that make suckers of some and a tidy political profit for others.
As the party of capitalism, it’s no surprise that Republicans do the better job of taking advantage of market opportunities. If extracting power out of a vote is like squeezing a quarter, the GOP’s vise-like grip is propelling Washington’s false teeth right out of his mouth and into the eagle’s ass on the other side. Democrats, true to their spendthrift reputations, spend votes like sozzled sailors, wake up with electoral hangovers, and think arbitrage is the brand of dodgy bourbon currently corroding their synapses (“give me an arbitrage and coke, I’m gettin’ my vote on.”)
Republicans have what is known in the trade as “greater voting efficiency,” which in English means the GOP gets a bigger electoral bang for the ballot than the Dems. For example, it cost roughly 205,000 Republican votes to “buy” an electoral vote for Donald Trump. It cost Democrats roughly 283,000 votes to nab one of those suckers for Hillary, and after paying 38 percent more per unit they turned around and piddled away five of them on the bright shiny distraction of protest votes. Bernie Sanders, Colin Powell and Faith Spotted Eagle all wound up with one of these expensive honors thanks to Dem electors, and I’m sure all three secretly thought Democrats should maybe lay off the arbitrage a little.
Electoral votes are fire-sale cheap compared to Senate seats, and it’s here that we really start to see Republicans clocking the double discount while Democrats get rooked. In 2016 Republicans coughed up a skosh over 1.7 million votes for each of the 22 United States Senate seats they won. The Dems splashed out an average of 3.8 million votes for a Senate win, and at those prices it’s no wonder they could only afford to buy a dozen rotunda rats. Calculated on a vote-per-seat basis the electoral system was charging the Dems a 200 percent-plus premium over its GOP customers. The invisible hand of our civic market is clearly dapping the GOP and diddling the Democrats big time.
The long and short of it is that a Democratic vote is not worth the same as a Republican vote because it simply does not have the same federal purchasing power. There’s a couple of reasons for this, some of which I’ve already yammered on at length about. States with Lilliputian populations, for example, wield disproportionate influence over the Senate and Electoral College because of apportionment rules, and the GOP has more of them. The GOP also controlled more state legislatures over the past decade, and has used those platforms to gerrymander the snot out of House districts. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats scooped up more than half of the state-wide votes for major party House candidates in 2016, but only won a quarter (5 of 18) of the seats. It takes serious partisan chutzpah to pull off that sort of cartographic legerdemain and have the resulting gaggle of sham-district pols toddle off to DC and make will-of-the-people noises, but there you are.
It was actually Pennsylvania that got me thinking what about what a vote was worth. Statewide, Pennsylvania Democrats spent an average 525,000 votes to purchase a single House seat, and Republicans spent about 189,500. The ratio of those two numbers is .36, which means in terms of purchasing power in the House of Representatives, a Democratic vote in PA was worth a paltry 36 percent of a Republican vote. Similar ratios are easily calculated for all states, and I’ve done that in the table below, which reports what I call the Bang for the Ballot Poll Parity Index or BBPPI. I call the acronym “Beepee” for short because it sounds sort of naughty in a juvenile way and so fits the current suck-my-thumb-and-wail state of politics. Oklahoma’s got a teeny Beepee, heh, heh.
Blue states in this table are where Democratic votes are worth more than GOP votes. So, for example, Maryland’s .24 means that a Republican vote there is worth about a quarter of a Democratic vote in terms of its ability to acquire representation in the House. The red states flip the numerator and denominator, so they show how much a Democratic vote is worth compared to a Republican vote. So, for example in Florida, a Democratic vote is worth about a quarter of a Republican vote. The yellow states are places these ratios is more or less 1, in other words they are states where the purchasing power of votes is equal.
A lot of the zeros in the red and blue columns represent pocket-sized constituencies, small population states that only have one House district. In those states one party is always going to end up with zippo House seats, so we shouldn’t get too bent out of shape that Beepees for, say, Vermont and South Dakota show a GOP goose egg in the former and Democratic bupkis in the latter. Still, note there are a number of zero Beepee states with three or more House seats dominated by one party. For example, Democrats got about a third of major party votes in Kansas and didn’t win any of that state’s four House contests. Most of these one-party states are Republican, places where Democrats represent a non-trivial fifth to a third of the voters who effectively have worthless ballots in House races.
The Beepees make a couple of things clear. First, the number of states with actual ballot parity is depressingly small. Only in New York, Arizona and Maine are the vote of a Republican and the vote of a Democrat equal in terms of their ability to buy representation in the so-called people’s House. In just about every other state, the House delegation exaggerates—often by a walloping margin—a party advantage. Some of this is undoubtedly due to how partisan votes are naturally scattered across a state. A lot of it, with even less doubt, is attributable to districts jiggered so politicians can pick their voters rather than letting voters pick their politicians.
Second, in the contest for splattering topological taint on the one-person one-vote yardstick, the GOP is clearly doing a better job than the Democratic Party. The Dems sure have their outposts of democratic duplicitousness, including some big kahuna delegation states like California and Illinois. But any way you slice it there’s a lot more red than blue on this list. On average it’s better to be a Republican voting in a Democratic state (mean Beepee = .40) than a Democrat voting in a Republican state (mean Beepee = .33). Republican votes are worth more even in places where they’re not worth much.
So what’s your vote worth? If you’re a Republican in Texas or a Democrat in California, rejoice. Your vote is worth appreciably more than the suckers toting electoral water for the other party. If you’re anyone in Arizona or Maine, be happy with the knowledge your vote actually meets that rare me-you-Bill-Gates-and-the-bum ideal. But a stonking swath of the electorate is drawing the geographic short end of party parity. For you lot, and there’s definitely a lot of you, my condolences. Now everyone can take a peek at your Beepee and know just how small it is.