November 5th, 2004

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 — 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.

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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.)

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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?