ELECTIONS AND RULES
I shouldn’t be surprised that the friendly discussion with Brad DeLong on what the 2000 election demonstrates with regard to US political stratification has reopened the “Bush lost” debate. While granting that I’d have been more upset with what John Constantine describes (in the comments) as a “technical victory” if my guy had lost, I think it’s important to understand that there is no “right” way to determine electoral winners.
Many European (and other) states use a proportional representation model. In many ways, that’s “fairer” than the single member district model that the US employs. In our system, someone who prefers, say, Ralph Nader is forced to either “waste” his vote or instead chose the least objectionable major party candidate. If the US had a PR system, Gore would likely have emerged as the winner by putting together a coalition with the Green forces after the election.* Indeed, given the results of the 2000 contest, that might have been a more “fair” outcome. But PR systems often result in the tail wagging the dog–the fringe groups having disproportionate power because they can take their ball and go home.
For presidential contests, we use the rather archaic Electoral College system, in which the several States are given the power to vote for president. Indeed, there is no constitutional requirement whatsoever that forces the States to even hold elections for this function. As it turns out, 48 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia have chosen to allocate their votes (1 per Congressional District plus the two Senatorial seats) in a winner-take-all fashion. Two, states, Maine (since 1972) and Nebraska (since 1996) have decided instead to apportion their two Senatorial votes at large while dividing their Congressional District votes based on the outcomes in those Districts. Either method is perfectly valid, as long as the rule is made before the election.
Other systems, including France, Russia, and most US State level primaries, employ a double ballot sytem, wherein a majority vote is needed to win, so a run-off is held between the top two vote getters if no one gets a majority on the first ballot. In many US elections, no candidate gets a majority of the vote, because “third party” candidates siphon off some votes from the two major party candidates, but the plurality winner “takes all”. Indeed, it’s conceivable that California will elect a governor this October who gets only 10-15% of the vote!
Remember, too, that the rules of the game effect the strategy. Candidates will run in order to win under the rules. So, in our Electoral College system, there isn’t much incentive for Republicans to campaign in DC or Democrats in Utah. Now, they’ll both get votes in those places and, in tight races, getting out the vote there might be useful–if it were run as a nationwide contest. It is not. Bush didn’t spend much time campaigning in Texas in 2000, for example, and the vote there was likely suppressed somewhat given the inevitability of the outcome.
The fact is there are numerous plausible ways to allocate votes and determine elections. The mathematician John Allen Paulos makes this case persuasively in his book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, in which he defends, among other models, Lani Guinier’s controversial multiple vote schema. Again, as long as the rules are agreed upon in advance, the system is legitimate.
In close sporting events, odd outcomes happen routinely. Football games are often won by the team that amassed fewer offensive yards. Baseball games are often lost by teams that got more hits. But those things, while instrumental in the playing of the game, aren’t the object of the game. Indeed, one joke that was going around during the recount debacle was that the Mets really won the 2000 World Series using Gore’s logic. A law review article on this theme can be seen here. Another variant of this joke can be seen here.
*This is a bit strained, as PR systems are generally (always?) used in the context of a parliamentary system.
Update (1708) New York Times:
National Desk | November 12, 2001, Monday
EXAMINING THE VOTE: THE OVERVIEW; Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote
By FORD FESSENDEN and JOHN M. BRODER (NYT) 2527 words
Late Edition – Final , Section A , Page 1 , Column 1
ABSTRACT – Comprehensive review of uncounted Florida ballots from 2000 presidential election, conducted by consortium of eight news organizations and professional statisticians, indicates George W Bush would have won election even if US Supreme Court allowed statewide manual recount of votes ordered by state Supreme Court; finds, contrary to allegations by partisans of Vice Pres Al Gore, that Supreme Court did not award election to Bush; says that Bush would have retained slender margin if Florida court order to recount more than 43,000 ballots was not reversed by Supreme Court, and that even under strategy Gore pursued at beginning of standoff, of filing suit to force recounts in four predominantly Democratic counties, Bush would have retained lead; says close examination of broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in court decisions shows Gore might have won if courts ordered full statewide recount of all rejected ballots, and if he pursued in court action he publicly advocated of calling on state to count all votes; finds statistical support for complaints of many voters, particularly elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County, who said in interviews after election that confusing ballot designs may have led them to spoil their ballots by voting for more than one candidate; charts; photos (M) A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.
Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore. A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.
Update (1927): Steven Taylor has more data at Poliblog.