After last week’s New Hampshire primaries, I’ve gotten a lot of email requesting my take on the uproar surrounding recounts and voting machines.
For those who haven’t heard, there’s been some chatter
about cheating in the election. In polls leading up to the election, Barack Obama was
leading by a large margin. But he ended up losing the election to Hillary Clinton by a couple
of percentage points. The argument about fraud centers on the fact that there are two voting
methods used in NH: electronic optical scan machines, and hand-counted paper ballots. In the
districts that used paper ballots, the vote results tended to look more like the poll results –
significant lead for Obama. In districts that used optical scan, the results were strongly in
favor of Clinton. This discrepancy, combined with the pre-election polls, have led some people
to suspect that the Clinton campaign somehow cheated.
So, my take? It doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with the results, but we should do an audited recount anyway.
Looking at the results, there is a discrepancy, but it’s not a particularly dramatic one.
Different districts in states tend to vary. Rural districts vote differently that urban ones;
richer districts vote differently from poorer districts. And the way that districts count their
votes are not independent from those factors. Large urban districts are much more
likely to have optical scan machines; small rural districts are much more likely to hand-count.
When you look at the votes, and at polls, you find things like Clinton tended to do better in
urban districts – the places that were most likely to have optical scan. The differences
between voting patterns in districts with different kinds of voting machines is consistent with
the expected (and measured) difference between the populations of those districts. The vote totals make good sense, and from a mathematical perspective, there is absolutely no reasonable ground for suspecting fraud of any kind.
So why recount?
Because every election should have an audit recount. What I mean by an audit recount is randomly select 5% of the polling places throughout the state, and recount them by hand. If there are any significant discrepancies between the reported count and the result of the hand recount, then recount all of the votes.
Every election should have a recount, because elections are easy to steal. Whether you use a touch-screen electronic machine, an optical scan machine, a mechanical lever-pull machine, or a simple wooden box where people put ballots, it’s easy to cheat and steal an election. That’s why recounts are so important: you need to check, to make sure the results make sense. It’s ludicrous to create a legal requirement that every vote has a voter-verified
paper trail if you never check that paper trail. NH requires the paper trail, but then basically throws it away without ever looking at it. That’s just ridiculous. The paper trail itself does nothing unless someone looks at it. And the integrity of an election is so important that we absolutely should check it, even if there’s no reason to suspect fraud.
In fact, it’s arguably more important to check it when there’s no reason to
suspect fraud. Lousy cheaters are relatively easy to catch, if anyone cares enough to look
out for them. Ballot stuffing is, in generally, pretty easy to catch. What’s hard is when you’ve got a clever cheater.
To give a totally trivial example, back when I was in high school, I auditioned for the all-state band. A rival, who had a very dishonest private teacher, really didn’t want to see me get in – he wanted to be able to show that he was better than me. So his teacher went in to the scoring room, took the scores, and changed them. How do we know that? Because the system judged each person in three categories, and each judge in each category gave a score out of 100 for each audition. So an audition score ranged from 9 to 900. The dishonest teacher took the
scores, and changed all 9 of them to “3/100”, giving me a total audition score of 27/900. The next lowest audition score out of 500 people auditioning was in the 400s. It was obvious that there was cheating going on, because the guy changing the scores was
cheating. If he’d just knocked my scores down by 10%, I would have been kept out just as effectively – but we would never have known that he anyone cheated.
In general, elections are a lot like that. Most of the time, cheaters do stupid stuff. If you shift 50,000 votes in a 100,000 person voting district, no one is going to believe the results. If you find 10,000 votes counted in a district with 5,000 people, you know something is wrong. If the bottom-of-the-ballot bozos get no votes at all, you know something is wrong. But under those conditions, someone will always call for a recount, because something is obivously wrong. On the other hand, if someone consistently switches 2% of the votes in every voting district, it can have a huge impact on the outcome, and it won’t be obvious
that there’s anything wrong. But an audit check will catch it.
Some folks that I respect greatly have made the argument that the closed-source
nature of the voting machines software is relevant to the discussion of recounts. I disagree, strongly. Even if the voting machines used open-source software, and the hardware was carefully verified with published schematics, I’d still say we need to recount. Technology, no matter how good, is no guarantee of anything. No matter how open and secure the code is, no matter how good the hardware, a clever human can intervene in the process and cheat. We can’t let our confidence in an openly developed voting system blind us to the fact that there are always dishonest people who try to cheat. Never forget the recount riots in Florida,
to try to prevent anyone from figuring out if the count was wrong: people who want to cheat will find a way, and will use any argument to try to prevent people from detecting their
cheating. The only way to even have a chance of defeating cheating in elections is to
check the count, every time.