Ping (zestyping) wrote,
Ping
zestyping

Have the people spoken?

George Bush and Republicans are claiming a decisive victory in Tuesday's election. They point to the fact that he won a majority of the popular votes as well as the electoral votes. They breathe sighs of relief at not having to repeat the counting fiasco of the 2000 election and see this "decisive victory" as evidence that our democracy is functioning well and smoothly again. They say the people have spoken clearly and unmistakably chosen four more years of Bush.

I find these bold declarations shocking.

First, the mechanisms of democracy were not functioning well at all. There's a database of reported problems at voteprotect.org — just look at the huge lists of problems in Cleveland or New Orleans. There were widespread reports of malfunctioning machines, problems with provisional ballots, and absentee ballots not arriving on time. There were incidents of voter suppression and intimidation, polling stations opening very late in the day, and insufficient machines being delivered to polling stations, all in predominantly minority neighbourhoods. And we all know that there were major discrepancies between the exit polls and the results — discrepancies larger than the margins of victory in key swing states.

Unless there was a systematic, coordinated effort by voters to lie at the exit polls, something was wrong in Ohio. As Greg Palast wrote, "At 1:05 am Wednesday morning, CNN's exit poll showed Kerry beating Bush among Ohio women by 53 percent to 47 percent. ... Kerry also defeated Bush among Ohio's male voters 51 percent to 49 percent. Unless a third gender voted in Ohio, Kerry took the state."

Louisiana was an unqualified disaster: according to Joe Hall who spent the day taking reports of election problems, "Most (if not all) of the AVC Advantage machines in New Orleans (Orleans Parish) were failing. ... We had attorneys in the field file a request ... to force the county to ... print paper ballots to accommodate all voters. It was denied, despite the fact that people had been waiting in lines for seven hours in some places." ELECTronic 1242 machines were failing "left and right" in Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Here's another report from a pollworker in Alameda, and another account of the serious problems in Ohio.

Second, even if the results were perfectly accurate, 51% does not constitute an overwhelming majority. It is a razor-thin victory. In fact, this was the smallest margin of victory by which a president has ever been re-elected in the history of the United States. I spent the afternoon collecting data from various sources on past elections to verify this fact. (It is surprisingly difficult to find all these numbers.)

Votes are counted in thousands (given the margin of error and the discrepancies among the different sources i used, it didn't seem justified to report significance down to single votes). VAP stands for "Voting Age Population". The bold green rows are years that the president was re-elected; the italic red rows are years that the president was defeated by a challenger.

See all preceding years since 1789.

Year Winner Votes % Votes % VAP EVs Margin Opponent Votes % Votes % VAP EVs Voters % VAP
1900 McKinley (R) 7218 51.7% 292 6.9% Bryan (D-P) 6256 44.8% 155 13970
1904 Roosevelt (R) 7627 56.4% 336 18.8% Parker (D) 5083 37.6% 140 13519
1908 Taft (R) 7676 51.6% 321 8.5% Bryan (D) 6407 43.0% 162 14883
1912 Wilson (D) 6293 41.8% 435 14.4% Roosevelt (P) 4120 27.4% 88 15041
1916 Wilson (D) 9126 49.2% 277 3.1% Hughes (R) 8547 46.1% 254 18533
1920 Harding (R) 16171 60.3% 404 26.2% Cox (D) 9140 34.1% 127 26798
1924 Coolidge (R) 15718 54.1% 382 25.2% Davis (D) 8386 28.8% 136 29076
1928 Hoover (R) 21373 58.1% 444 17.3% Smith (D) 15000 40.8% 87 36790
1932 Roosevelt (D) 22825 57.4% 472 17.8% Hoover (R) 15758 39.6% 59 39747
1936 Roosevelt (D) 27748 60.8% 523 24.2% Landon (R) 16680 36.5% 8 45642
1940 Roosevelt (D) 27263 54.7% 449 9.9% Willkie (R) 22306 44.8% 82 49840
1944 Roosevelt (D) 25594 53.4% 432 7.5% Dewey (R) 22005 45.9% 99 47967
1948 Truman (D) 24106 49.5% 303 4.4% Dewey (R) 21970 45.1% 189 48692
1952 Eisenhower (R) 33936 55.1% 442 10.8% Stevenson (D) 27315 44.4% 89 61551
1956 Eisenhower (R) 35585 57.4% 457 15.4% Stevenson (D) 26030 42.0% 73 62025
1960 Kennedy (D) 34200 49.7% 31.3% 303 0.2% Nixon (R) 34088 49.6% 31.2% 219 68783 63.0%
1964 Johnson (D) 42957 61.0% 37.7% 486 22.4% Goldwater (R) 27149 38.5% 23.8% 52 70443 61.7%
1968 Nixon (R) 31759 43.6% 26.4% 301 0.9% Humphrey (D) 31136 42.7% 25.9% 191 72906 60.6%
1972 Nixon (R) 47169 59.9% 33.5% 520 22.9% McGovern (D) 29171 37.1% 20.7% 17 78727 55.9%
1976 Carter (D) 40826 50.1% 26.8% 297 2.1% Ford (R) 39148 48.0% 25.7% 240 81556 53.5%
1980 Reagan (R) 43902 50.7% 26.7% 489 9.7% Carter (D) 35484 41.0% 21.6% 49 86515 52.6%
1984 Reagan (R) 54455 58.8% 31.2% 525 18.2% Mondale (D) 37577 40.6% 21.5% 13 92653 53.1%
1988 Bush (R) 47946 52.3% 26.2% 426 7.6% Dukakis (D) 41016 44.8% 22.4% 111 91595 50.1%
1992 Clinton (D) 44908 43.0% 23.7% 370 5.6% Bush (R) 39102 37.5% 20.6% 168 104405 55.1%
1996 Clinton (D) 45591 47.3% 23.2% 379 8.1% Dole (R) 37816 39.2% 19.2% 159 96456 49.1%
2000 Bush (R) 50456 47.9% 24.1% 271 -0.5% Gore (D) 50997 48.4% 24.4% 266 105405 50.4%
2004 Bush (R) 58979 51.1% 27.1% 279 3.1% Kerry (D) 55384 48.0% 25.4% 252 115428 53.0%

Sources: Federal Register data for 1789 to 2000, ICPSR election results for 1824 to 1972, FEC VAP and turnout figures for 1960 to 1996, FEC election results for 2000, Census 2000, Washington Post results for 2004, FEC VAP figures for 2004.

The central orange column shows the margins of victory measured as a percentage of the popular vote. This year, Bush won by 3.1%, which is the smallest bold number in that column. You can also see that the percentage of the voting-age population that voted for Kerry is the highest for any defeated challenger in the years with data (since 1960); based on the rest of the popular vote percentages, it's likely that a larger fraction of eligible voters voted for Kerry than any defeated challenger in history.

There is something seriously wrong when a country is so polarized that an election alienates 49% of the population. This is not how a democracy is supposed to work. But that is just what has happened recently, twice.

I am amazed and puzzled by this coincidence. How is it that the country is divided into two segments with such wildly opposing views that each sees the other as essentially insane? It doesn't make sense to me that this should be possible. Yet it's true, and even more incredibly, the country is divided almost exactly in half. Why is it 50-50 and not 80-20? Election theorists will say that any plurality system tends toward a two-party duopoly and that in a two-party system both parties head for the center, splitting the vote exactly in half. But George Bush is not a centrist! He is not moderate by any stretch of the imagination, not even to Republicans. So how did this happen?

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