Absentee voting officials wait in an empty polling place during early voting at the Oklahoma County Board of Elections in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

When you flip your channel to CNN every four years on the first Tuesday of November, do you wonder what color will fill Texas’s borders on the election map? If you are a Republican in Vermont, do you go to the poll booth with any belief that your vote will matter? If you answered “no” to both of these questions, you have probably realized that our winner-take-all electoral system is at the root of American politics’ biggest problem: voter apathy.

As a Democrat growing up in Nebraska, I grew accustomed to walking on eggshells around my conservative neighbors. I prepared myself for whispers and judgmental glances any time I expressed my political views. As a child of the Bush era, I spent my formative years believing that the United States government could not have cared less what I thought. Despite my constant efforts to be politically engaged, have convincing factual arguments, and to participate in the political system, it was simply not enough. I felt like a blue speck of algae in a red Nebraskan ocean.

Then the 2008 election year arrived. I was in Seattle for a domestic high school exchange program where I somehow found myself defending a Republican freshman. Attacked from all sides by her very liberal classmates, she defended her beliefs with poise and intellectual rigor. Despite the fact that I fully supported then-Senator Obama, I could not help but sympathize and identify with this girl. Like me, she was living in a state where her vote would not count and her opinions would not be seriously considered.

2008 was important for another reason: Nebraska split its electoral votes for the first time in forty years. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states in which electoral votes are awarded in a per-district basis, rather than winner-take-all. That historic year, the vote of the Omaha district, where I live, went for Obama while the state’s other four votes went for McCain. (The state government gerrymandered my district soon after so that this would not happen again in 2012, but that is another story.) Although the effect of Omaha’s electoral vote was small on the national scale, our blue dot on the overwhelmingly red state map was an enormous sign of hope for me. It signaled that I was not alone after all and that my voice did, in fact, matter.

But that blue dot was not enough to fix American politics. Our democracy cannot function if large swaths of people feel hopeless and apathetic about political participation. About 40 percent of American citizens, over 90 million people, do not bother to vote in a typical election year. In terms of voter turnout, our nation ranks 120th out of 169 nations that hold democratic elections. This means we have just a slightly higher percentage of voters than Benin. These numbers look dismal, but can we blame Americans for being apathetic when two-thirds of electoral votes are often decided even before Election Day? If you live in Ohio or Florida, the whole country watches your ballot. But for the Democrats in Austin, Texas, for the Republicans in rural Vermont, and for this Nebraskan Democrat, it often feels like no one would notice if we skipped the ballot box altogether.

We cannot continue to place undue influence on the swing states. Although the distribution of electoral votes might seem like nothing more than a political technicality, it is at the very core of our national morale and feelings of self-worth. When our vote is worthless, we feel that our deepest-seated beliefs, and even our very selves, are worthless as well. If Thomas Jefferson meant what he said when he wrote that “all men are created equal,” then none of us are worthless. Every single voice – even those with which we disagree most – ought to be heard. For a healthy nation, a healthy political system, and an engaged group of citizens, every vote needs to actually matter.

If every state split its electoral votes according to districts like Nebraska does, we would have a much fairer system that accurately represented what Americans want. Although most of Texas would still vote Republican, the huge Latino population there would have a larger voice. Conservative farmers in largely liberal, urban states would not be totally forgotten. Speaking from experience, seeing your blue (or red) dot on the election map can be enough to restore your faith in the American political system. You might still be unhappy with who becomes the next president, but at least you know that it was a fair fight.