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David S. Abraham Headshot

Election Polls and Predictions vs. Democracy

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The New York Times' Nate Silver masterful prediction of the election is now legend. He anointed Obama to a second term before the vote, giving him a greater than 90 percent chance of winning. He lambasted pundits who questioned his certainty as detached from "objective reality." Silver and his model nailed every state correctly in this presidential contest, four years after getting 49 out of 50. While Silver's projection accuracy is great for Silver's future and those of other budding mathematicians soon to follow in his footsteps, it is a worrisome sign for our democracy.

Silver showed that if we poll enough people enough times before an election then we can predict the results. (And to be candid, I enjoyed following his cogent analysis.) But unlike, say, football, where the entire game must be played to decide the winner, the presidential election in its final weeks is more about revealing your blackjack cards. And when Silver counts the cards, it reduces the surprise, and the willingness for people to take part in the process.

This is not conjecture. Major television stations no longer report polling data as the elections are ongoing to ensure that people turnout to have their voice heard. Already long lines -- and even reports of long lines -- voter ID laws, and limited polling hours keep people from the polls on the first Tuesday in November. Sadly, the demands of work for many people and a lack of transportation essentially disenfranchise them. What's more, our electoral college system which essentially leaves the choice of president to voters in just a few states skews American political rhetoric and policy to focus on the farmers in Iowa, the factory workers in Ohio and the coal miners of Pennsylvania. Silver's precise polling quantifies their importance, adding even less urgency for turnout in the country's most populous states like New York, Texas and California.

Add in Silver's accuracy in assessing the winner, and the turnout may plummet as "likely voters" become less so. This is important not just because the country's winner may hang in the balance but because the size of the victory matters. Polls are not just about winning and losing a specific race; they gauge public sentiment. And if less people are willing to go to the polls as they "know" the result, we lose that perspective. What's more, local races, such as for first selectman or mayor, where the contest may be closer, will be left up to solely die-hards who turn up at the poll.

Voter turnout for U.S. elections is already atrocious. Less than 60 percent of eligible people vote. My visits to polls from Azerbaijan to Kyrgyzstan, where election officials and some voters traverse snow-capped peaks to cast ballots, can get better turnout than the U.S. election, (even if, sadly, some locales have turnout greater than 100 percent). But the difference is that after 200 years of election history; we should have perfected inclusive voting. After all, what makes American democracy great is that it is a non-violent, participatory process where all people determine its leaders. In schools, we teach our children that every vote counts in determining our leaders and the issues they address; Silver's analysis shows otherwise.

To the extent Silver's success and the failure of the pundits to accurately call the election reduces the willingness of television producers to put bloviators on air who shun fact and base opinions on gut, Silver is a godsend. And his polling is just what television may need -- opinion backed by logic -- but it may not be in the best interest of the nation.

But in a country where many are already detached from the voting process, thinking the election has a greater than 90 percent chance of favoring one candidate undermines our democracy.

David S. Abraham has monitored elections throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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Obama Romney
332 206
Obama leading
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Popular Vote
33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
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Holdover
Republican leading
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Democrats* Republicans
Current Senate 53 47
Seats gained or lost +2 -2
New Total 55 45
* Includes two independent senators expected to caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (Maine) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
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Republican leading
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Seats won 201 234
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