Endless Elections

The permanent campaign has now been joined by the endless election, thanks to a combination of more sophisticated campaigning and the normalization of legal challenges, Andy Barr writes for Politico.  He notes that the Minnesota Senate recount is now into its sixth month and that there have been an inordinate number of very close races in recent years.

While acknowledging that there’s no good statistical tracking to determine whether this is truly a new phenomenon but finds plenty of experts willing to attribute it to “the increased sophistication of modern campaigns.”

They point to the pinpoint targeting and identification of potential voters, the increased use of absentee and provisional ballots and the growing use of litigation as a political strategy.  “Campaigns are contacting record numbers of individuals,” said University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin, who specializes in polling and elections. “Polling is certainly not a new thing, but the ability now to link the polling and use it for optimal effect in targeting and turning out voters is unprecedented.”

Just as campaign strategists have become better than ever at promoting their candidates and turning out voters, election lawyers have honed their legal tactics for keeping clients in the hunt long after the polls have closed.  Just last week, for instance, in anticipation of a close outcome in the New York special House election, lawyers representing Republican Jim Tedisco filed a motion contesting a win for Democrat Scott Murphy before the last vote was cast on Tuesday evening. While the maneuver attracted widespread criticism on the left, the strategy of putting legal boots on the ground at an early stage is becoming a critical component in closely contested elections.

“Election law has become more of a political strategy,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the author of a popular and well-respected election law blog http://electionlawblog.org/ . “When these races are so close, almost anything can matter.”

At one time, there was a stigma attached to litigating election outcomes, largely because candidates feared getting labeled as sore losers — an important consideration since many candidates are officeholders or have plans to run again for office in the future. But after the 2000 Florida presidential recount, election lawyers say, fighting it out in court became an accepted part of the business.

There’s good reason to think we’ll see more of this in the future.

This may be one of those things that fall into the category of “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time (Shimon Peres via Don Rumsfeld).”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    I still like my solution(*), “if the first count is within x% of a tie, automatic run-off election.”

    * – I suppose this sensible approach must be in place somewhere

  2. Some version of a run-off would be an extremely useful solution. While not a 100% guarantee, the likelihood is that it would result in far clearer results in these close cases. We can know with near certainty that it would have in the Minnesota case.

    Had there been, say, an instantaneous run-off system in place, we would have avoided all of these legal challenges.

  3. Charles Fenwick says:

    My thought on statistical data for this was that people who work congressional re-districting would have info on this. Browsing around however, I realize that 1. The finished products classify “competitive races” relatively broadly and 2. They are focused on particular states. Still, it seems like someone with access to the CQ databases could crank out numbers fairly quickly.

    My instinctive response to these sort of situations (where a new trend is claimed without supporting statistical data) is “No, it’s not, we’re letting our ignorance of the past (and sharp memory of the present) get the better of us.”

    That said, it’s plausible to me that an examination of the data would reveal a shrinkage in the number of races that are “kind of close”, with a 5-10% margin of victory, and an expansion in the numbers of “truly close” and “non-competitive races”.

    Some grad student out there needs to get cracking on this!

  4. Perhaps the problem could be turned into a solution. In this day of computing and the internet, truly go into permanent campaign mode. Voters can vote their support for the current incumbent. When he isn’t the top vote winner, put in the new guy. Add in a term limit and the reality of the permanent campaign becomes part of the solution. The incumbent would still have the advantage, but I suspect that people like Dodd would already be on the sidelines.