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The Real Impact of 7 Million

by Matthew Morse // Published March 17, 2009

Last week, the Senate Rules Committee held a hearing on issues surrounding voter registration. Among those testifying were Prof. Stephen Ansolabehere, whose research indicates that between 4 and 7 million prospective voters were turned away in the 2008 election even though they wanted to vote or attempted to vote. Additionally, 9 million voters didn't vote because of excessively stringent registration deadlines (for example, many, including military families, had just moved and couldn't reregister within the time frame).

Focusing in on the first statistic, Prof. Ansolabehere discovered that these 4-7 million voters were disenfranchised due to two primary problems associated with voter registration: 2-4 million could not vote because of registration authentication problems, while 2-3 million attempted to vote but were turned away at their polling place due to on-site issues. The aggregate figure of 7 million voters constitutes over 5% of the 131,000,000 voters in the 2008 election.

To illustrate Prof. Ansolabehere's point, Senator Schumer held up a chart discussing the impact of 7,000,000 disenfranchised voters on a national election. He highlighted the margins of the national popular vote in relation to 7,000,000 voters. For example, the margins in recent years were:

  • 9,500,000 votes in 2008
  • 3,000,000 votes in 2004
  • 500,000 votes in 2000
  • 8,200,000 votes in 1996

True, 7 million voters could have altered the outcome of the national popular vote in half of these elections, but Sen. Schumer failed to point out that the national popular vote is purely a symbolic measure. Using our current state-by-state, winner-take-all system, the national popular vote has no direct impact on the election of the President. For example, in 2000, President George W. Bush won despite having a minority of the popular vote. More precisely, far fewer than 7,000,000 voters could have changed the outcome of any of these elections depending on where the voters lived. Continuing the example of the 2000 election, 538 votes in FL could have changed the outcome of the election. Taking this into account, the following number of votes could have altered the outcome of the Presidential election had they fallen into the so-called "battleground states:"

  • 530,000 votes in 2008
  • 119,000 votes in 2004
  • 538 votes in 2000
  • 1,150,000 votes in 1996

Compare these margins to the margin of the national popular vote (graph below), and it becomes immediately apparent how urgent this problem is. 7,000,000 voters is a massive quantity that could influence any election in recent history.

I fully support Sen. Schumer for bringing this issue to the attention of the Rules Committee, and I sincerely hope they use this opportunity to improve upon the current system as a whole, rather than wait until a crisis to attempt haphazard reform programs. But as we tackle the problem, we must fully understand the high stakes and the consequences of inaction.