Reducing the Margin For Error

Will we ever know who "won" the Washington Governor's race? While from a practical perspective someone will eventually become governor, on a scientific level the question may remain forever unknown:What's happening in Washington could have occurred almost anywhere in the country, said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a clearinghouse on election-reform news and information. "There are 49 other states who are mopping their brows and saying, 'Phew, it could have been us.' "

Why? Elections work fine when candidates win by a large margin. When victory comes down to roughly the capacity of a Metro bus, small errors -- stray marks on ballots, punch cards that weren't punched properly and human mistakes -- can cloud the final vote tally.

Like survey polls that try to show what people are thinking, elections have what statisticians call a margin of error.

"There is a margin of error in connection with any measurement system, whether we're counting fish in a lake or counting votes for a governor," said Kirk Wolter, a statistics professor at the University of Chicago who did research on what happened in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

More after the jump.
Certainly, any election system has a margin for error. It is undeniably true that in the 2004 elections, like in any election, tens of thousands of people nationwide, if not many more, experienced difficulties when attempting to vote. These difficulties included long lines, intimidation, registration problems, voting machines, faulty ballots, and other issues. Taken together, these difficulties accumulate into a very real margin of error:

Since 2000, watchdog groups have intensified their monitoring and cataloging of complaints and errors. The nonpartisan Verified Voting Foundation and other groups built a database of more than 30,000 ''election incidents" reported across the country this year. Most were routine, but nearly 900 involved significant e-voting problems, including malfunctions that shut down machines, lengthening waits at the polls. There were 42 reports of total breakdowns of machines in New Orleans and 28 in Philadelphia and ''15 reports of catastrophic machine failure" in Mercer County, Pa.

The most serious problems occurred in North Carolina, where 4,438 e-votes disappeared in Carteret County. In at least five other counties, major double-counting or undercounting was discovered and corrected by North Carolina officials during their tabulations.

Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, attributed many mistakes to ''the human element, brought on by fatigue." In Carteret, for example, election workers apparently did not notice the ''Voter Log Full" message on the black box as the UniLect touch-screen failed to record the electronic votes, she said.

''If we had problems in the past, they were not magnified like this," McLean said, referring not only to the closeness of the statewide race, but also the extraordinary scrutiny of voting since 2000.

While a margin for error will exist in any election system, that does not mean we should be fatalistic when it comes to reducing the margin for error in our own system, which is both possible and necessary. Unfortunately, when it comes to reducing the margin for error, the conservative response is usually something like thisRepublicans said conducting a recount is pointless.

"If there's a recount, there's going to be two losers John Kerry and the Ohio taxpayer," said Mark Weaver, a lawyer representing the Ohio Republican Party. "It's going to cost more than $1.5 million to find out what we already know."

This was also typical of conservatives before the election, as they sought to increase the margin of error on a Democratic victory by as much as possible:In Colorado, they do not want you to vote.
In Florida, they do not want you to vote.
In Minnesota, the do not want you to vote.
In Nevada, they do not want you to vote.
In Ohio, they do not want you to vote.
In Oregon, they do not want you to vote.
In Pennsylvania, they do not want you to vote.
In West Virginia, they do not want you to vote.
In Wisconsin, they do not want you to vote. While conservatives work feverishly before an election to increase the margin of error, and then cry endlessly when an election is decided within the margin for error, fortunately for America, before, during and after elections progressives work just as feverishly to clean up our election system and reduce the margin for error. The activist network that collected the huge database of voting problems discussed above is jus the tip of the iceberg on this front. For example, Bev Harris is working on this very goal: ''All day long, I get desperate calls from people who are in so much pain," said Harris, the Black Box founder, who said she is convinced fraud occurred in some places Nov. 2. ''They say: Can you fix it? Can you solve it? Can you turn around the presidential election? We're not trying to turn the election around. We're trying to get elections to be more transparent, because with the new machines, it's not transparent." So are Congressional Democrats: One Hundred Eighth Congress
Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
2138 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington DC 20515-6216
(202) 225-3951

December 2, 2004

The Honorable J. Kenneth Blackwell
Ohio Secretary of State
180 East Broad Street, 16th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215

Dear Secretary Blackwell:

We write to request your assistance with our ongoing investigation of election irregularities in the 2004 Presidential election. As you may be aware, the Government Accountability Office has agreed to undertake a systematic and comprehensive review of election irregularities throughout the nation. As a separate matter, we have requested that the House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff undertake a thorough review of each and every specific allegation of election irregularities received by our offices.

Collectively, we are concerned that these complaints constitute a troubled portrait of a one-two punch that may well have altered and suppressed votes, particularly minority and Democratic votes. First, it appears there were substantial irregularities in vote tallies. It is unclear whether these apparent errors were the result of machine malfunctions or fraud.

So is John Kerry, working alongside David Cobb and Michael Badnarik: Two other presidential candidates, the Green Party's David Cobb and Libertarian Michael Badnarik, plan to request a recount in each of Ohio's 88 counties.

The candidates have raised enough money to pay for the recount themselves. On Friday a US district judge halted an attempt by one county to stop the recount.

But both major parties have said they do not expect the recount to change the result. The Kerry campaign is also backing the recount, AP news agency reports. However, it says it is not disputing the outcome of the election but simply wants to make sure the count was accurate.

So are protesters and netroots activists, who have worked tirelessly to bring media attention to the issue. They are clearly having some success, with Google News registering over 350 stories on the issue in just the last four days. The recommended diaries at Daily Kos are filled with the latest developments, as are the message boards at Democratic Underground. I have written quite a bit about the subject myself.

We are joined in our efforts by by Terry McAuliffe:

We are launching this comprehensive investigative study not to contest the results of the 2004 election, but again to help ensure that every eligible vote cast is truly counted," Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement today.

"This study will address the legitimate questions and concerns that have been raised in Ohio. Our goal is to understand and report back on what happened and why."

Liberals and progressives of all kinds, all political parties, and all positions of power within political parties are working on cleaning up our election system, reducing the margin for error, and reducing the possibility for fraud. We do this because this is what progressive do--work to reform, clean and improve the transparency of important national trusts such as the right to vote. From women's suffrage to the fight for voting rights in the 1950's and 1960's, this is always what progressives have done, and what they continue to do. Whether your name in Bev Harris or John Kerry we are all on the same side on this issue, as is shown from the remarkable similarity in the Harris and Kerry statements above. We should never allow the occasional insult to cause us to forget, or even willfully ignore, that we all stand together on reducing the margin for error and the possibility of fraud. We cannot change the past, but by standing together we can work so that one day an election as close as the one in Washington will be known scientifically, because every vote is counted fairly, and everyone is allowed to vote without technical difficulties.

Tags: Activism (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

Suggestions for improvement?
What should we change to reduce the margin of error?

Would e-voting (with a voter-verified paper trail added, of course) help? I think it might, though we have to beware of design flaws, as with the machines in Cataret County mentioned above. The paper trail should also be optically scannable.

What other technologies could help? It doesn't have to be high-tech electronics; personally, I never saw much of a problem with the "old-fashioned" lever machines, except perhaps for multilingual and/or handicapped accessibility. They seemed like the appropriate technology for the task of voting.

Would a split system of both technologies be best?

by Mathwiz 2004-12-07 07:29AM | 0 recs
Reducing the margin of error
Here are some concrete ways:

  1. Same day registration.
  2. Bubble optical scan machines.
  3. Local optical scan tabulators instead of centralized tabulators.
  4. Sufficient machines.
  5. Convenient polling places
    Some people have suggested a two-week voting period with voting stations located througout the county open from 7 am to 7 pm as a way to tackle suggestions 4 & 5.
by The Bite 2004-12-07 02:32PM | 0 recs

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