Let’s Not Recount If Nobody Cares

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin has received a good bit of publicity for his proposals for automatic, state-funded recounts in the event of very close elections in statewide races.

He’s probably right to do this. In very close elections — and Mullin is targeting those with margins of one-tenth of one-percent – the case is strong for having recounts should be automatic and full. The current system, with candidates forced to fund the counting and able to cherry-pick, doesn’t work.

But I’d add one big caveat – and amendment – to Mullin’s bill:

A turnout quorum for a recount.

Or in other words, don’t count if no one cares.

That’s right. To trigger a recount in a close race, there ought to be some evidence that people actually care about the election. There are far too many offices for which people don’t know the candidates. And there are many elections when turnout is painfully low.

So how could a turnout quorum work? I’d suggest a simple test: if fewer than half of registered voters eligible to vote in an election fail to turnout, then there can be no recount. If the public doesn’t care enough to show up and choose who represents them in an office, why should we spend the money on a recount?

Turnout quorums have been used in other countries—but in a different way. If not enough people show up, the election result doesn’t count. That’s problematic, but tying turnout to recount makes much more sense.

This would be healthy, for a couple reasons. It might create a small incentive for campaigns in tight races to turn out voters (and to be less reluctant to keep down the other guy’s votes). But any such effect is likely to be small.

More important, it would stir productive controversy. A few close, low-turnout races that don’t get a recount might force some focus on the fact that we vote on too many offices and on ballots that are too long. Maybe controversy would stir reforms. Like eliminating elections for statewide offices other than governor and secretary of state.

Most of us vote on the basis of party anyway. No normal person can learn enough to make informed judgments about so many candidates. And when we don’t know or care about the candidates, there’s no reason for a recount.

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