Science Says We Have A Problem. Can The System Answer?

Is requiring that a vote be overturned in cases where the evidence shows over a 95% chance that the election system failed the voters and democracy a radical solution? When should there be a re-vote? Or simply overturn an election?

Two important articles in the spring issue of CHANCE, from the American Statistical Association present some stark evidence and raise some necessary questions: <read both>

Florida 2006: Can Statistics Tell Us Who Won Congressional District-13?
by Arlene Ash and John Lamperti

Statistical Solutions to Election Mysteries
by Joseph Lorenzo Hall

The first looks at what statistics can tell us about the missing 18,000 votes in Florida-13 in the 2006 Congressional election. Some of its conclusions:

Then, we sum the estimates of the “full” vote across the strata, leading to a new estimate of R-D that represents the Republican advantage after imputing values for the undervote among these 12,000 people. This calculation suggests Jennings’ advantage among these lost votes alone was almost certainly greater than 3,000. It swamps Buchanan’s original 369-vote winning margin…

The study by Frisina uses two methods to analyze the CD-13 undervote. Both infer undervoters’ choices from their votes for other candidates. One uses precinct-level data from Sarasota County. The other involves matching Sarasota voters with counterparts in Charlotte County. Both show that Jennings was almost certainly the preferred choice among the majority of CD-13 voters.

These different estimates may seem confusing. However, the key point is that all plausible models of what the lost votes would have been point to the same conclusion. Furthermore, the more carefully we examine the data, the more support we see for that conclusion. While poor ballot design may or may not fully account for the Sarasota undervote, it is clear that those missing votes switched the outcome of the congressional race from Jennings to Buchanan.

In the second article, Joseph Lorenzo Hall looks at what can and should be done:

Elections in the United States are strange. While other nations have problems with violence at the polls or seemingly insurmountable logistical issues, the problems in our country cluster around complexity. No other country votes so frequently, for so many contests at all levels of government, using dozens of methods to enfranchise all eligible voters. Naturally, such complexity results in frequent errors and a few genuine mysteries…

Part of the answer proposed by Ash and Lamperti is to regularize checking the math behind our elections. This requires two elements: There needs to be something to audit-an audit trail-and there needs to be the appropriate regulatory and procedural infrastructure to conduct election audits…

Unfortunately, despite states overwhelmingly moving toward producing audit records, audits of these records are only performed in one-third of all states, and then they are performed under a wide variety of standards…

And what should we do about it?

Ash and Lamperti propose a less intense, but equally radical, solution to these kinds of mysteries. They advocate allowing elections to be overturned based on statistical evidence. Compared to regularizing post-election audits, this proposal is obviously more complex, involving legal line-drawing standards about when to consider an election suspect based on statistical evidence. For example, is 95% confidence that the election was decided incorrectly enough? 90%? 99.9%? Should the standard be overwhelming statistical evidence, indisputable statistical evidence, or something else? And how will assumptions about undervotes, such as those discussed by Ash and Lamperti, and overvotes be evaluated? Who will do the evaluation? Different assumptions, in some cases, will make a difference. Developing such guidelines for statistical challenges to elections will be difficult, but it might be exactly what judges look for in future litigation involving election mysteries.

Is requiring that a vote be overturned in cases where the evidence shows over a 95% chance that the election system failed the voters and democracy a radical solution? When should we do a re-vote? Or simply overturn an election? With the chance of error above 99%? 90%? 50%? 25%? 1%? (see Dick Cheney’s 1% Doctrine) Or when the chance of the exact wrong result is so high, should we simply overturn the result without a re-vote?

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