Getting the Vote Count "Right"

As Election Day looms, fear of an ambiguous result leading to more 2020 anxiety or even civil unrest makes getting an accurate vote count more important than ever. Yet, getting back to an earlier discussion of mathematical fallacies, nowhere is the gap between human belief in the perfection of numbers, and the grubby reality of numerical information in the real world more apparent than when votes are counted.

As mentioned in that post linked above, the fact that two plus two always equals four creates the illusion that mathematical processes, especially simple ones like counting stuff, will always yield superior results compared to processes involving imprecise human beings. But in an election involving tens of millions of people filling out differently designed ballots that must be counted by machines that jam or malfunction or – even worse – by people, messiness inherent in a complex process is going to lead to imprecision, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

If you don’t believe that simple counting can be so problematical, hand a deck of cards to a dozen people and ask them to count them and I guarantee you at least one person will give you an incorrect number. The mind wanders and gets distracted, after all, especially when performing dull and repetitive tasks. And even if we ignore criminal acts like voter fraud or suppression, some of the 70 million votes that have already been cast by mail or in early voting are going to be disqualified due to simple human error (like signing a mail-in ballot form in the wrong place).

These factors explain why every election that has ever taken place involving more than a few hundred votes likely included a margin of uncertainty regarding where the “real” vote count actually ended up. Whenever the winning candidate’s margin of victory fell outside this range of uncertainty, we were able to ignore the fact that final tallies represented a pretty solid approximation of voter support, rather than a mathematically certain outcome. But when the winning margin fell within the uncertainty range: kaboom!

The most well-known example of such a kaboom was the 2000 presidential election in which decisions regarding who won or who lost came down to how several thousand people in a few Florida voting districts filled out a confusingly designed ballot. For weeks, votes were counted over and over again with politicians, lawyers and judges hovering around the vote counters trying to influence the tally one way or another.

While people still harbor resentment regarding how one party or the other tried to put their thumbs on the scale in 2000, the real story is that no one was willing to admit that in a process as complex as a presidential vote count, a true, genuine, accurate numerical result might not exist. But rather than declare the election a tie (since whatever “final count” people generated would still be within the margin of uncertainty) and find some way to settle the matter (such as a re-vote or coil toss), we continued to count, recount, and re-recount in desperate hope that the true number that might not be findable would emerge from the process.

Whatever the result of Tuesday’s race, the best outcome would be for one candidate or the other to win so big – ideally in terms of both the popular and Electoral College vote – that results are perceived as certain and we can return to our happy fantasy that numbers tell a true tale. Absent that, we are likely to enter another period with everyone looking for someone to blame when a quantitative process prone to ambiguity refuses to give us unambiguous answers.