15.1  MYTH: The current system typically produces undisputed outcomes, whereas recounts would be frequent under a national popular vote.

QUICK ANSWER:

  • The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of electing the President has repeatedly produced unnecessary artificial crises that would not have arisen if there had been a single large national pool of votes and if the winner had been the candidate who received the most popular votes nationwide.
  • There have been five litigated state counts in the nation’s 57 presidential elections under the current system. This high frequency contrasts with the mere 22 recounts among the 4,072 statewide general elections in the 13-year period between 2000 and 2012—that is, a probability of 1-in-185. In other words, the probability of a disputed presidential election conducted using the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is dramatically higher than the probability of a recount in an election in which there is a single pool of votes and in which the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes.
  • The current state-by-state winner-take-all system repeatedly creates artificial crises because every presidential election generates 51 separate opportunities for a dispute because of an outcome-altering statewide margin. The nation’s 57 presidential elections have really been 2,237 separate state-level elections.
  • Recounts would be far less likely under the National Popular Vote bill than under the current system because there would be a single large national pool of votes instead of 51 separate pools. Given the 1-in-185 chance of a recount and given that there is a presidential election every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 740 years under a National Popular Vote system. In fact, the probability of a close national election would be even less than 1-in-185 because the 1-in-185 statistic is based on statewide recounts, and recounts become less likely with larger pools of votes. Thus, the probability of a national recount would be even less than 1-in-185 (and even less frequent than once in 740 years).
  • Many people do not realize how rare recounts are in actual practice, how few votes are changed by recounts, and how few recounts ever change the outcome of an election.
  • The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount is a mere 294 votes.
  • Only one in seven recounts reverses the original outcome.
  • Recounts appear to be becoming rarer. There were no recounts among the 419 statewide elections in November 2012.
  • Improved technology can be expected to further reduce the occurrence of recounts in coming years.
  • MORE DETAILED ANSWER:

    Criticism of the National Popular Vote plan in connection with recounts is an example of a criticism that actually applies more to the current state-by-state winner-take-all system than to the National Popular Vote plan. As explained below, recounts in presidential elections would be far less likely to occur under a national popular vote system than under the current state-by-state winner-take-all system.

    Indeed, the question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes. If we were debating the question of whether to elect state Governors by a popular vote, the issue of recounts would never even come to mind, because everyone knows that recounts rarely occur in elections in which there is a single pool of votes and in which the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes.

    Tara Ross, an opponent of the National Popular Vote plan, has stated:

    “The Electoral College typically produces quick and undisputed outcomes.”