Elections and Ferries

The saga of the 2004 Washington State gubernatorial election continues.  People are so focused on who’s going to win the recount that they’re missing a larger point.

The margin of difference between the two candidates is somewhere around 0.01%, maybe even 0.001% depending upon which count you believe.  That’s a difference of at most one in ten thousand votes.  Unless you believe that the error rate in vote counting is less than that, the election is a statistical tie.  People might blanch to hear it, but you’re as likely to determine the "winner" of this election from a coin toss as you are from any number of recounts.  It’s like trying to count the exact population of the United States; the information changes too quickly to be sampled and human error introduces distortions. 

The reason that it matters, and why virtually any tactic that the two sides employ to get their candidate certified as the winner is defensible, is that an election is like a ferry.  Two cars may get onto the ferry line within seconds of each other, but if the one in front is the last one on the boat, then the one in back misses the boat entirely.  A small difference gets magnified hundreds of times over.  Just like in Florida in 2000.

What interests me about this is what a reasonable margin of error is in a modern U.S. election.  In other words, what percentage of votes gets miscounted due to all forms of error.  One in a hundred?  One in a thousand?  What if you include errors made by the voter, e.g. accidentally voting for the two candidates?  And people whose votes are incorrectly included or excluded?

Washington State law stipulates a mandatory machine recount for a difference of less than 0.5% (1 in 200) and a mandatory hand recount for a different of the smaller of 0.25% (1 in 400) and 150 votes.  With current voting practices and technology this seems optimistic to me.

Improvements in the use of technology and requiring election officials to be non-partisan can help, but even if we shrink the margin of error we must resign ourselves to the fact that in the closest elections the winner is arbitrary.  I suppose we should be thankful that we have a system that can endure this.


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