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Election Day worry: 'Does my vote count?'

Election A to Z answers readers' questions such as: Is there a minimum percentage of the American population required to vote in order for a presidential election to be valid?
Image: Sarah Palin in Carson, California
A rare late campaign season visit to California by a candidate on a national ticket: Republican vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin waves to her fans at a rally Saturday in Carson, Calif.David McNew / Getty Images file
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“Will my vote really matter?”

That's a common worry expressed in e-mails to us at Election A to Z. Other messages simply state “my vote doesn’t count.”

It helps to be realistic on this point.

If you live in a state that has consistently gone for the presidential candidate of one party for years, and that party's pick is comfortably ahead in the polls right now, the outcome on Nov. 4 probably won’t be close in your state.

Take California as an example. Democrat John Kerry won it in 2004 with a plurality of more than 1.2 million votes. Barack Obama, almost surely, will do as well or better this year. So if you live in California, your one vote won't be "make or break," at least not in the presidential contest.

One of our readers wrote with her concern about the television networks announcing the outcome of the presidential balloting in a given state on election night.

She asks:

“When news reports state that a candidate has ‘won the state,’ does that mean my vote does not count, if I live in that state and I'm voting for the other candidate?”

The simple answer is no.

Your vote does count, at least in the sense that a legally cast vote will be counted by the election officials.

If you end up being one of the 40 percent who voted for the losing candidate in your state, well, at least you tried.

What this reader may be referring to are the pundits’ current forecasts of how particular states will go on Election Day.

These predictions are based on current opinion polls and on the TV ad dollars and other resources the campaigns have invested in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

A pundit’s current forecast that a candidate will win Wisconsin may well turn out to be wrong on Election Day.

Certainly if you live in a battleground state such as Wisconsin or Ohio your vote is in much greater demand this year — at least in the presidential race — than if you live in California.

NBC News does not project a winner of the presidential contest in a state until the polls have closed in that state on the night of Nov. 4. So NBC and will not make a call as to who won a state until the polls are closed.

Is there a minimum percentage of the American population required to vote in order for a presidential election to be valid? If not, why?No state requires that a minimum percentage of its eligible population vote in order for a presidential election to be valid.

In 2004, about 122 million Americans — nearly two-thirds of voting-age citizens — voted in the presidential election. 

According to the Census Bureau, the state with the highest participation was Minnesota, with nearly 80 percent of the voting-age population casting ballots. 

The state with the lowest rate was Hawaii, with about 50 percent of those eligible voting. But we have not heard anyone suggesting that Hawaii’s four electoral votes were not valid.

The idea of a minimum number of votes is a feature of some states’ constitutions when it comes to elections for local school bond levies. For instance, if 10,000 people voted in a particular school district in the previous general election, then at least 4,000 people would need to vote in the school bond election in that district in order for the election to be valid.

But there is no such requirement for presidential elections in the United States Constitution.

Article II of the Constitution leaves it to each state’s legislature to decide how to choose its presidential electors:  “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the electors from that state.

A reader in Miami asks about her absentee ballot. “I am a registered Republican, and I will be out of the state on Election Day. Can I get an absentee ballot to vote Democrat?”According to Jennifer Krell Davis of the Florida Department of State, Florida voters have until October 29 to request a mailed absentee ballot. Everyone will get the same ballot for the Nov. 4 election. The party ballots are only for the primary elections.

To our surprise, some readers still seem to be under the illusion that voting in a party’s presidential primary somehow determines or limits how they vote for a presidential candidate on Nov. 4.

Let’s be clear: If you voted in your state’s presidential primary for a Democratic candidate, you are not required to vote for Democratic candidate Obama in the Nov. 4 election. Likewise for Republican primary voters: If you voted in the GOP primary in your state, you aren’t required to vote for John McCain on Nov. 4.

You can vote for any presidential candidate you wish.

Do the other parties, other than the Democratic and Republican parties, have electors in the Electoral College as well?Yes, the other parties such as the Green Party do have slates of presidential electors on the ballot in the states where they are qualified to be on the ballot.

If the Libertarian presidential candidate, Bob Barr, were to win more popular votes in California, for instance, than any of the other candidates, then he would get the electoral votes of the state’s 55 Libertarian electors. You can find a list of those 55 electors here.

In the event of a 269-269 electoral vote tie, assuming each state’s congressional delegation remains as it is today, how many states’ delegations are majority Republican, how many are Democratic and how many are evenly split between the parties?It is the new House, which takes office on Jan. 3, 2009 which would decide who would be president in the event of an electoral vote tie.

The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution sets the rules: “The votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote.”

In the current (outgoing) Congress, Democrats control 27 state delegations, while Republicans control 21. Two are evenly split between the two parties.

It seems likely that Democrats will gain seats in the House on Nov. 4.

So the control of state delegations in the new House next January might be even more tilted to the Democrats.