Abolish Recounts
Why the first vote should be the one that counts.


Jason Richwine

Norm Coleman and Al Franken continue to wrangle over who is the rightful winner of Minnesota’s recent U.S. Senate election, but the election has no real winner. Instead of the current recount process, Minnesota may as well purchase a diamond-encrusted gold coin, etch Franken’s face on one side and Coleman’s on the other, wait several months, and then flip it. This would be no greater waste of time and money.

The reason for this is simple. The election was a tie.

Of course, the election was not a tie in the strict sense, but it was a statistical tie. Just as pre-election polls have a margin of error, there is a certain amount of randomness in actual voting. When the public is extremely closely divided, as it was in Minnesota, the eventual “winner” of an election is selected more or less randomly on voting day.

Where does this randomness come from? Weather patterns affecting turnout in certain areas, for starters. Some voters also forget to register or to mail in their absentee ballots, accidentally check the wrong box on their ballots, or show up too late at the polls. We have also seen bureaucratic errors made by poll workers, such as wrongly allowing or disallowing certain people to cast ballots.

Even leaving aside these procedural mistakes, some voters are simply misinformed. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer found that 10 percent of registered voters believed Barack Obama opposed abortion rights. And fully 20 percent thought John McCain supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, even though McCain’s opposition to the timetable was a centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda. When people are misinformed about the candidates’ positions, their true opinion is not necessarily reflected in their votes–hence even more imprecision in how the vote total reflects popular sentiment.

If one candidate wins decisively, this kind of random noise and inaccuracy will not be enough to affect the outcome. But in extremely close contests like the Minnesota race–Franken currently holds a 0.007 percent lead–randomness makes all the difference. For that reason, neither Coleman nor Franken can possibly claim he “deserves” to win. There is no “rightful” winner, regardless of which absentee ballots are rejected, or which kinds of hanging chads get counted, or which precincts hold recounts, or which lawsuits get hearings, or which political party controls the election board, or which miscellaneous legal maneuvers each campaign makes. This is why recounts should be abolished.

No doubt each man’s supporters believe there is great value in their own candidate winning the seat. But society’s interest in an election is solely in discovering the majority’s (or plurality’s) favored candidate. When randomness prevents this from happening, it doesn’t matter who is declared the winner. No amount of recounting will add any social value.

On the contrary, recounts are a drain on the community’s resources and morale. Consider what the state of Minnesota has already endured. The process began with a state-mandated recount. Following that was a lawsuit by the Coleman campaign to halt the counting of rejected absentee ballots, followed by a lawsuit by the Franken campaign to force his certification as the winner, then an official contest of the results filed by the Coleman campaign to address “irregularities” in the vote counts, and then a counter-motion by the Franken campaign to dismiss the contest.

Worst of all, because of all of this legal maneuvering, Minnesota effectively loses one Senate seat in the new Congress until the situation is resolved, which could take months. The quixotic pursuit of the “true” representative of the people of Minnesota has meant that the people get no representative at all.

It is tempting to blame the candidates themselves, but they are trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma. The ideal scenario is that neither protests the election, but in reality, each man knows he can win if he protests the result and his opponent does not. So both end up litigating the outcome, and no one is better off–Franken’s and Coleman’s chances are still 50-50, and the public pays for it.

We cannot rely on candidates to voluntarily refrain from demanding recounts. The only solution is to simply bar them from happening. After the conflict finally ends, Minnesota should change its election law to prohibit recounts–the candidate leading on election night wins the election, period.

The state should work to make elections as transparent as possible, and any fraud should be vigorously prosecuted. But unless one candidate can show that the returns are somehow so invalid that the election may not have even been close, we have nothing to gain and much to lose from recounts.

  — Jason Richwine is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative. He’s completing his Ph.D. in public policy this spring at the Harvard Kennedy School.