Hamilton – Political Science 101: Three percent plus one
March 15, 2010
As a result of the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein from power, Iraqi women got to vote for the first time in 2005, albeit under the guardianship of U.S. and allied forces. Readers may recall the photograph of the joyous face of that Iraqi woman holding up a purple-dyed finger to show that she had voted in the parliamentary election.
Despite bombs and sniper fire used by Iraqi insurgents to discourage voting, 79.6-percent of the newly freed Iraqis made it to their polling places. In 2010, under the guardianship of their own police and military, the Iraqis held another parliamentary election. Once again, the insurgents tried to stop the voting. Even so, the turnout was 62.4-percent.
Voting is much easier in America. We don’t have to run a gauntlet of bombs and sniper fire to get to the polls. Voting is so easy in parts of Chicago that some get to vote twice, even the dead get to vote. In the 2008 presidential election cycle, 61.7-percent of us turned out to vote. A modern record!
When yours truly taught political science and political campaign management at the university level, some students would opine that it was not possible to “beat city hall.” They would complain that, once elected, public officials turn deaf ears to the voices of the people.
No amount of polling data would dissuade elected officials from doing whatever the heck they wanted to do or did not want to do. They asked, “Why get involved in political campaigns when the numbers are stacked so heavily in favor of those already in office?”
Of course, “open seat” elections offer more opportunity to change the political status quo. But even entrenched incumbents can be ousted if you know how to capture just 3 percent of the electorate plus one vote. That’s right. To win, you only 3 percent plus one vote.
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To encourage students to get involved in the political process, these typical election statistics proved helpful: You start by understanding that if 100 percent of the people were eligible to vote, you would need 50 percent of them plus one vote to win. But if you subtract felons, illegal aliens and minors, then only 70 percent are eligible to vote. Next, figure that only 40 percent of those eligible to vote will register to vote.
An average, only 20 percent of those registered to vote will bother to get to the polls or even mail in their ballots. As a rule of thumb, 7 percent will always vote Democrat, and 7 percent will always vote Republican. That accounts for 14 percent of the 20 percent who vote. Thus, we are left with the all-important “undecided” 6 percent. Voila! To win, you only need 3 percent of them plus one vote.
Considering that Americans, unlike the Iraqis, do not have to fight their way to the polls, it gives one pause that elections in this country can be won by only 3 percent of the population plus one vote. But then, these averages also demonstrate that each individual vote carries a lot of weight. That one vote tacked onto that 3 percent decides who wins or loses.
During the political primary season, our major political parties redefine what they are for and what they are against. Then, the parties decide who is going to represent their views in the general election. Thus, the primary season offers the individual his or her best opportunity to either “throw-the-rascals-out” or “keep-the-decent-folks-in.”
It all begins at the precinct level. Abraham Lincoln advised his party to: Make a perfect list of those registered to vote. Figure out those who are for you. Identify those who are undecided, and convince them to be for you. Then, get all your supporters to the polls.
Old Abe knew how to obtain that 3 percent plus one vote and win. As a consequence, Lincoln freed the slaves, saved the Union, and founded one of today’s major political parties.
– Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.