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Every Vote Will Not Be Counted

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The naïve view of democracy has long held that "every vote counts," and that close elections can be decided by "counting every vote" and by inferring the "will of the people" from an election result where the winner's vote tally beats the loser's vote tally by as few as a single vote.

In practice, however, no large-scale election has ever involved counting every vote. In real life, there are numerous obstacles to counting every vote including spoiled ballots, questionable ballots, human error, provisional ballots, and a myriad of other votes that exist in a gray area. 

The US presidential election of 2000 offers an instructional example in how votes are really counted. 

The 2000 Election: Not All Ballots Are Created Equal 

On election night 2000, the presidential election came down to close elections in three states: Oregon, New Mexico, and Florida. But, by the next day, it became clear that whoever won Florida would win the presidency. 

The close margin of votes in Florida (the initial spread amounted to fewer than 1,800 votes out of nearly six million votes cast in Florida). By November 12, officials in several Florida counties were hand counting hundreds of thousands of ballots. By November 13, both campaigns are involved in a variety of legal actions seeking to bar recounts or allow recounts, or challenge the legal claims of the opposing campaign. 

In late November, the Florida election had largely become a matter of obtaining legal rulings determining which votes would be counted, and from where. Legal disputes over what votes to count involved a wide variety of minuscule details including the question of whether or not to count overseas ballots that lacked a postmark as required by Florida law. A judge rules they can be counted. 

Over time, the Bush campaign concluded it wanted to prevent a manual recount in Florida and entered into a legal battle to stop the recount. After a number of conflicting court rulings, the US Supreme Court overturned the pro-recount position of the Florida Supreme Court and effectively declared Bush the winner. 

Although a winner was indeed eventually chosen, the election was, for all intents and purposes, a tie. 

Both Bush and Gore received approximately 48 percent of the votes cast, and — since many recounts never occurred — there has never been any clear resolution to the question of who really won the most votes in Florida. 

The fact that a winner was chosen to the satisfaction of the legal and political authorities is not in dispute. But, the Supreme Court's arbitrary selection of some votes over others reminds us that in terms of the supposed moral authority of majoritarian rule that undergirds American democracy, no actual winner was ever demonstrated, and elections to do not come down to a simple matter of counting votes.   

Fortunately for the United States government, US residents at the time were willing to peacefully accept this outcome, and were willing to have the president chosen by the federal courts. This blasé attitude toward the election was no doubt helped along by the unusually strong economy enjoyed by many Americans in the late 1990s. Whether or not Americans would so willingly accept a similar situation today remains unclear. 


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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