The copy editor in me has a bone to pick with the term “voter mandate” and how this term and its variations have been used by some politicians.

The idea of a voter or electoral mandate has usually been used in U.S. political rhetoric to establish public approval of a politician’s stance on an issue. For example, when Republicans regained the majority in the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterm, Speaker John Boehner had this to say (bold emphasis added by me):

“I think that it’s a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government and continue our fight for smaller, less costly and more accountable government.”

This is the relevant definition in Merriam-Webster’s entry for “mandate”:

“An authorization to act given to a representative

<accepted the mandate of the people>”

Every time a U.S. politician claims a voter mandate claims that his voters support his stance on an issue, it’s technically not true because unless the election saw 100% voter participation (an absolute rarity in U.S. elections), the claim of  a “mandate from the people” is actually based on a limited sample of voters. The 2010 elections only saw a 41% voter turnout rate. If we’re to adhere to M-W’s definition, it’s like saying only 4 in 10 members of the electorate gave Boehner the “authorization to act.” The other 6 either don’t know about, don’t want to or don’t care about “[reducing] the size of government.” You wouldn’t say all voters in your constituency support you when only a portion turned out to vote. This isn’t unlike taking a poorly sampled poll and then trying to draw a conclusion based on the poll’s data: the result is skewed and incorrect, falsely affirming a wrong hypothesis.

Boehner incorrectly interpreted the influx of Republicans in the House and reduction of the Democratic majority in the Senate to mean Republicans had a “mandate” from the American electorate to follow through with the Republican agenda, particularly the rollback of the Affordable Care Act. But that extrapolation simply doesn’t fly, in semantics or in reality.

An exit poll conducted by CBS News during the 2010 elections (the same election from which Boehner received his “mandate”) demonstrates just that:

In today’s preliminary exit polling, nearly half of voters — 48 percent — said health care reform should be repealed. Another 31 percent said it should be expanded, while 16 percent said it should be left as is.

Forty-eight percent is not a mandate to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s not even a majority. It’s clear Boehner and company either don’t know what “mandate” means, or they’re deliberately and wrongfully augmenting the perception of American support for the health care law’s repeal.

In the realm of politics, the application of skewed data (e.g. an election with low voter turnout) will result in a skewed conclusion (e.g. Americans must not like the Affordable Care Act), which emboldens poorly staked positions and adds to the discord on Capitol Hill today. At a time of gridlock and a “us vs. them” mentality in American politics, this is the last thing we need. So please, to legislators on both sides of the aisle and the media outlets that use these enticing words in their headlines: let’s move away from absolute words like “mandate” and create a less extreme atmosphere in our political rhetoric.