How much is a vote worth? In Georgia, it’s a lot

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Karen Handel enjoys her big win. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

For many Democrats, the day after Jon Ossoff lost a surprise bid for Congress to recurring GOP candidate Karen Handel, seemed like the longest day on Earth.

They were right.

The 2017 summer solstice — the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere — fell on Wednesday.

Being a perfectly objective journalist who has to stay up until the final vote is counted, I didn’t care who won. Like anyone else who saw a political ad more than they saw their own family, I just wanted it to be over.

I probably read or watched a dozen recaps of why Ossoff lost or Handel won. None mentioned reality — there are more Republican voters in the 6th District than Democrats and you can’t buy votes, yet.

That doesn’t mean you can’t try. The 6th District special election was the most expensive House race in history.

Combined, Ossoff, Handel and special interest groups spent about $55 million to fill the expiring term of Rep. Tom Price, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

If you are struggling to pay a mortgage, $55 million seems like a lot of cash. But is the hefty price tag really that hefty when compared to other campaigns?

Yes. The previous most expensive House race was Florida District 18 in 2012. About $30 million was spent and a 29-year-old Democrat no one had ever heard of, Patrick Murphy, barely won in a Republican-leaning district.

Hmmmm. That strategy sounds familiar, but it didn’t work in Georgia.

A more interesting way to look at cost is per unit. Politics manufactures little, other than discord, but for the purpose of this exercise we will consider votes as a unit of production.

Excuse me while I attempt to perform math: $55 million divided by 258,000 total votes equals more than $200 per vote.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent a combined $2.65 billion in their 2016 contest and collected 130 million votes … a rather paltry $20 each.

The presidency is pretty valuable. For at least four years you can Tweet pretty much anything you want and create all kinds of consternation.

If you win a House seat you are one of 435 people trying to get attention any way possible. And you have to run for reelection in two years. Handel doesn’t have that long. She’s yet to take office, but has to run again next year. She’s probably going to spend as much time campaigning as she will spend flying to Washington.

How can Democrats start winning again?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em doesn’t really work in politics. Instead, state legislatures redraw congressional district maps to make it more likely their side dominates.

“He who controls redistricting can control Congress,” said a 2010 Wall Street Journal column by Karl Rove.

Today, Republicans control state legislatures in 32 states and new political boundaries have attracted the attention of the Supreme Court.

More than 45 percent of Georgians voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, but 10 of Georgia’s 14 congressmen and two-thirds of the state Legislature play for the red team.

Coincidence? Maybe. But letting winning politicians choose their own voters surely keeps things more lopsided than the losing side likes it.


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