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David D. Burstein Headshot

Just One Vote

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Imagine a parallel universe in which Dennis Hopper and Kelsey Grammer are running for president and the election comes to down to the vote of one man -- Kevin Costner. That is the plot of the film Swing Vote which opened last weekend. The movie is funny, touching, and at moments poignant. It is likely to be great summer box office fare, and no doubt will get some in political circles talking, especially with the real life U.S. presidential election less than 100 days away.

But you might wonder: could an election really come down to one person's vote (let's assume it doesn't have to be Kevin Costner's)? It is obviously extremely improbable ... at least, certainly not in a presidential election. Sure there have been a number of elections in recent years where every vote has really counted. The 2004 Washington Governor's race saw Democrat Christine Gregoire squeak by Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes. Joe Courtney won his Connecticut House seat by a mere 83 votes. But when Jim Webb won his election, and by doing so tipped the balance of the United States Senate, by just over 9,000, that was "deemed close" and anything around there is by any standard considered close for a national election.

A New Hampshire state house race in 2006 was decided by one vote and ultimately had to be decided by the New Hampshire Assembly itself. But while every vote always counts, other than local races now and then, a major election almost never comes down to a single vote.

Well then, that raises an interesting question ... what exactly does one vote mean?

When I travel around the country speaking about the youth vote, I frequently hear people say "My vote doesn't count." For some, that view is conditioned by their belief that powerful special interests have come to dominate the political game, and elections, no matter how close, are not what really matter. Others feel that the Electoral College system has robbed the individual voter and the popular vote from real power. Interestingly, though it is in fact the Electoral College that has sealed the deal on the "Swing Vote" scenario -- and the possibility that one vote being able to decide an election. The closest we came to this scenario in modern political history was, of course, Florida in 2000, where 537 popular votes -- a tiny, tiny fraction of those cast -- flipped Florida, with all its electoral college power, and as a result, changed the outcome of the presidential election. Florida in 2000 was an election where you could say every vote counted, including the many votes that were probably not counted or not counted in the way they had been cast.

To be scientifically factual, a single voter's action of casting their ballot in and of itself does not count in a presidential election, any more than a single taxpayer not paying their taxes will bankrupt the country. This may sound strange coming from someone who has spent the past four years trying to increase voter turnout, but in the end, we're really fighting for the Kevin Costners of the world to become convinced that each individual's vote could swing an election. The stakes are about the future quality, content and process of our democracy, not about a single vote. What those of us who want to encourage youth participation and voter turnout really want is for young citizens by the tens and hundreds of thousands to recognize the importance of voting and, in their aggregate, to create meaningful votes and increasing that meaning with numbers.

When people ask me to prove to them that their vote counts, I usually tell them: think of your vote as a vote not just for you, but for your family, your colleagues, your friends, and your entire generation. If you vote, you are voting for all of them, and that is the power you have with one vote. It is a mindset. It is an action we need everyone to take, and we need everyone to believe that what they are doing can affect far more many people than just themselves.

Many studies have been done on the mathematical value of one vote. These computer simulations done by rocket scientists ultimately reinforce this same point: a single individual's vote doesn't count statistically in presidential elections.

But, while your single vote may not count -- it can't hurt. Even it doesn't move the needle on the presidential race. More important, though: consider this. If you decide not to vote because you believe your vote doesn't count, you will be one of tens and hundreds of thousands of people in your state who thought the same thing. And tens or hundreds of thousands of people not voting could be the difference between one president and another, one kind of environmental policy and another, one kind of tax policy and another, and ultimately, a safer world or a more dangerous one.

It's so easy to opt out. All you have to do is ignore the election and be cynical. On the other hand, opting in is pretty easy. All you have to do is register, and then on Election Day, drive or walk to the polling place and vote. In voting, you become part of something much bigger than yourself ... You become part of an informed citizenry of millions of people flexing its collective muscle and making its collective voice heard. You aren't just a swing vote, now you can swing an election.

David D. Burstein is 19 and a student at Haverford College. He is the Executive Director and Founder of the young voter registration and mobilization effort, "18 in '08." For more information visit www.18in08.com