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for people who care about the West

Why the West gets mostly ignored in an election year


The other night we were channel-surfing and hit upon the Miss America pageant. "What year did women get the vote in the United States?" a contestant was asked. The answer, according to the pageant judges, was 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

The correct answer is a little more complicated. Women began voting in Wyoming Territory in 1869, and began voting in presidential elections after Wyoming became a state in 1890. Women from the Mountain West were voting for president long before the "official date" of 1920. In Colorado, Utah and Idaho, women first voted in the 1896 presidential election. Indeed, by 1920, Montana had already elected the first woman — Jeannette Rankin — to the U.S. Congress.

You don’t have to watch the Miss America pageant to see how we get ignored here. Just watch the short promos for what’s coming later. The announcement will say something like "11:00 Eastern, 10:00 Central." Once in a while there will be an "8:00 Pacific." But never a "9:00 Mountain." Our time zone doesn’t exist.

Our time zone is the network equivalent of flyover territory. But in a presidential election year, we might also ask: Is the Mountain Time Zone also a political nonentity?

Thanks to the arithmetic of the Electoral College, we do have more clout than our population warrants. The extreme example of this imbalance comes from comparing Wyoming, with about 500,000 residents in the 2000 census, to California, with 34 million.

California gets 55 electoral votes, one for each of its 53 U.S. representatives, and two for its two senators. Wyoming has only one representative, and thus three electoral votes. Do the math, and each Wyoming electoral vote stands for about 170,000 people, while each California electoral vote stands for 618,000 people.

In other words, a Wyoming voter has nearly four times as much influence on the presidential election as a California voter. This extends, though not to such an extreme, throughout the Mountain Time Zone. Nationally, the average electoral vote stands for 526,000 people, but here, only 437,000.

So, if the typical Mountain Time voter has 20 percent more clout than the typical American voter, why aren’t presidential candidates competing to accommodate us, perhaps by promising an end to new user fees on public land or catching up on deferred maintenance at our national parks?

For starters, that Electoral College arithmetic favors states with small populations, but even so, we’re still lightweights. The Mountain Time Zone has only 37 of the 535 electoral votes -- less than 7 percent. Texas, alone, has 34, and New York has 31.

This means that a candidate can get just about as many votes from carrying one big state such as California, and carrying that single state would not require the travel time and multiplicity of media markets that campaigning across seven states demands.

So we don’t offer much bang for the buck. You won’t see the Bush campaign spending much in Texas this year, even though it’s a big state with many electoral votes. Bush could carry Texas even if he announced plans to raze the Alamo because it was a threat to homeland security. The reverse holds for Democratic strongholds like New York and California.

States need to be competitive to get attention. New Mexico is the only Rocky Mountain state that a Democrat carried last time around, and then by only 366 votes. Pollsters say Arizona and Colorado might be competitive this year — and so both Bush and Kerry are frequent visitors.

But you won’t see much sign of either candidate elsewhere in the Red Zone West, because Republicans are so dominant. In 2000, Bush got 60 percent of the Montana vote, 68 percent in Utah and 71 percent in Idaho and Wyoming. Noncompetitive states, especially ones with few electoral votes, aren’t worth the trouble for either party’s candidate.

That may explain America’s current political geography. The Republican Party may have been founded by New Englanders and Midwesterners, but it is today a Southern party, stretching from Texas east to Virginia and Florida. The Democratic Party has become a coastal party, especially if you count the Great Lakes as a coast.

Here we all with all this public land everyone has a stake in, and neither party has much to do with our Mountain Time Zone, except to take it for granted, or else write it off entirely. And in neither case are they going to pay much attention to those of us on the ground in flyover country; their real constituencies are elsewhere, just like the network audiences.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He publishes Colorado Central Magazine in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].