Frishman on Misleading Election Results – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Frishman on Misleading Election Results

An article written by Professor of Economics Alan Frishman discussing how election results are often misleading was recently published in the Democrat and Chronicle. In the article, “Election Results are not a Clear Mandate,” Frishman argues that elected officials claim to represent the will of the people, but are often elected by only a small minority of voters due to low voter registration and voter turnout.

Frishman identifies three reasons why eligible voters do not participate. He argues that young people do not think any of the issues mentioned by politicians affect them; that voters see the two candidates as virtually the same so don’t bother to vote; and that voters don’t think their votes matter when candidates run unopposed or in polarized political districts. The result is that winners claim to have a “clear mandate from the voters” when they only represent a fraction of the population.

“The way to win is to get your motivated base to the polls and discourage your opponent’s supporters from doing so. Is this a good model of democracy for us and other countries?” Frishman writes in the article.

As a solution, Frishman argues that moving election days to Sundays or making them holidays would boost participation and give winners a “better claim of legitimacy.”

Frishman, who joined the faculty in 1976, received his Ph.D. and M.A. in economics as well as a certificate in African studies, from Northwestern University. He received his B.S. in mathematics from the City College of New York. His academic and scholarly interests focus on the economic development, urbanization and industrialization of countries in Africa (primarily Nigeria), Asia and Latin America. He is a member of the American Economics Association and the African Studies Association.

The full article by Frishman follows.

Democrat and Chronicle

Election results are not a clear mandate from voters

Alan Frishman – Nov. 20, 2015

As we saw again this month, election results are misleading, and politicians count on that. The media simply report the results and imply the winner has a clear mandate from the voters. But, usually the winners represent a small proportion of the adult population because so many people fail to register to vote and registered voters do not go to the polls.

In the recent election for Monroe County executive, Republican Sheryl Dinolfo got 56.2 percent of the votes cast and was declared a clear winner over her opponents. However, there are 575,645 eligible voters in the county; 73.6 percent (423,935) are registered, so 26.4 percent haven’t even bothered to register. Of the registered voters, only 123,368 voted (a 29.1 percent turnout). Thus, Dinolfo, who received 69,385 votes, won only 16.3 percent of registered voters and only 12 percent of the total voter eligible population. Does she represent the people of Monroe County and really have a mandate to do anything? I want to make it clear, had one of the other candidates won, my argument would have been the same.

In his 2002 book, Where Have All the Voters Gone?, Martin Wattenberg argues that there are several reasons why eligible voters do not participate. The greatest number of active participants are over age 35 because young people do not think that any of the issues mentioned by politicians affect them. Others, in all age groups, see the two party candidates as virtually the same, so why bother to vote. In other cases, because candidates run unopposed or are in districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican, voters think their votes don’t matter.

The result is that politicians get elected by a small minority of voters and then claim they represent the will of the people. The way to win is to get your motivated base to the polls and discourage your opponent’s supporters from doing so. Is this a good model of democracy for us and other countries?

In Australia, adults are legally required to vote or they are fined; Wattenberg does not think that would be acceptable in the U.S. However, another idea is to have Election Day on a Sunday or make it a holiday, so that virtually everyone can get to the polls more easily. Most other countries do that and they have much higher turnouts. Imagine what that might mean: elections would draw more voters to the polls, politicians would receive more votes and winners would have a better claim of legitimacy.

Alan Frishman is professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.