“Your vote matters” — three words that form the cornerstone of our democracy, or at least of “get out the vote” campaigns. But has your vote always mattered? On Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be inaugurated the 45th president of the United States, assuming that the December 19th electoral college vote goes as expected. That’s 45 times that your vote has mattered, right? (And by you, of course, I mean “the American voter,” not you personally. I mean, if you’ve been voting since 1789 I guess I mean you personally. I don’t want to get all presumptuous and ageist about this.)
Well, not exactly 45 times. I’m no presidential scholar; in fact, I’m what the French call–and I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly–an “idiot,” but I can handle basic math, so let’s set aside the vagaries of our system of government and just look at those 45 presidencies by the numbers.
The first thing that we have to consider in the context of whether your vote matters is the fact that five times in our history the winner of the popular has not won the electoral vote. Five out of 45 presidents isn’t so bad, right? That means that 89% of the time our popular vote and the electoral vote have aligned. Your voice has been heard nearly 90 percent of the time. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Take away those electoral college winners, and our adjusted number of “your vote mattered” presidents is 40, but hold on a second: Five of those 40 presidents were never elected to the presidency. Vice-Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Alan Arthur all succeeded presidents who died in office, but did not go on to win their reelection bids. Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon after his resignation, and then lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. So of our 45 presidents, 5 inherited the office and another 5 lost the popular vote. That moves the needle down to 78% of our presidents who made his way to the White House with the supports of a majority of voters.
But even that percentile assumes that we have all been eligible to vote since the nation was in diapers, which we all know isn’t true. It wasn’t until the 1857 election of our 15th president, James Buchanan, that white men in all states were eligible to cast their presidential ballots, regardless of whether they owned property. Right off the bat, this class of voters has only existed for 31 of our 45 presidencies. Factor in the three never-electeds and four popular vote losers since 1857, and the white male apartment dweller vote has aligned with the electoral college only 24 out of 45 times. That’s 53.5 percent, so congratulations white men: Even after factoring in 75 years of voter suppression, your vote still matters slightly more often than not.
Less than twenty years after all white men got the vote, the 15th amendment brought suffrage to black men. Their first presidential election came in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant earned a second term. Grant was our 18th president, so a little basic subtraction tells us that black male voters have existed for 28 presidents–not elections, but sitting presidents. Two never-electeds and four popular vote losers have sat in the big chair since 1873, bringing the adjusted number of presidential elections that reflected black men’s vote to 22. Again, if we consider the entire population of U.S. presidents going all the way back to George Washington, black men’s votes have mattered in 49% of presidential elections, mostly because they didn’t matter at all for the first 17.
Women didn’t get the vote in the United States until the early 20th century, their first election cycle being number 29, which brought Warren Harding to the White House. Of our 45 presidents, women have only helped to select 14 after adjusting for the never elected Gerald Ford and popular vote losers Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. Women, your voice has mattered a meager 31% of the time.
So what’s the point of this little math exercise? We can’t change the past, after all. I suppose the point is this: numbers never lie, but they don’t tell the whole story, either. Using the 45 presidents–or more specifically, how they ascended to office–as a measuring stick, we’re reminded that over the course of our union, white land owners have wielded demonstrably more influence on our republic than any other class of voters. What’s a little surprising is that even they have only seen their individual ballots shape the White House 78 percent of the time.
What’s more startling, perhaps, is that African-Americans and the group often referred to as “rural voters” or “poor white voters” have been factors in roughly the same percentage of presidential elections. And the stunner for those who didn’t pay attention in high school civics? Women are the most marginalized voters in American presidential history.
These are just numbers, and for that matter this is a very rudimentary interpretation of those numbers. Regardless, they mean nothing unless they’re put to use. How? I don’t know. That’s up to you. When you figure it out, let me know.