Who Really Won?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

John Allen Paulos On Exit Polls

He wrote Innumeracy (recommended) and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. He has an excellent rundown of the exit poll debate:

Absent any proof or compelling reasons for the differences between the final tallies and the exit polls in the swing states, I don't understand why these gross discrepancies are being so widely shrugged off. After all, the procuring of random samples is far more of a problem for ordinary telephone polls where the minority of people who cooperate with pollsters presumably differs in some way from the majority who don't. Still, these polls are not dismissed with the same impatient nonchalance as this year's exit polls.

Of course, what makes these discrepancies more than a technical problem in statistical methodology is that there is a much less likely, much more ominous explanation for them: massive fraud. Fraud is hard to believe for many reasons, one being the widespread nature, extending over different states and regions, of the shift to Bush. The difficulty of concealing a conspiracy grows very rapidly with the number of conspirators.

But another disturbing possibility is that there was no co-ordinated conspiracy, but rather many people working independently to subvert the election. The election has prompted extensive allegations of fraud, some of which have been debunked, but many of which have not. In several cases non-trivial errors have been established and official tallies changed. And there is one more scenario that doesn't require many conspirators: the tabulating machines and the software they run conceivably could have been dragooned into malevolent service by relatively few operatives. Without paper trails, this would be difficult, but probably not impossible, to establish.

Hard evidence? Definitely not. Nevertheless, the present system is such a creaky patchwork and angry suspicions are so prevalent that there is, despite the popular vote differential, a fear that the election was tainted and possibly stolen. (If 68,000 Ohio Bush supporters - only about a half dozen voters per precinct in the state - switched their votes, Kerry would be president-elect. Considerably fewer switches would be required if, as is likely, most provisional and spoiled ballots were good and went for Kerry.) A high-level commission should thoroughly examine the exit poll discrepancies and our electoral apparatus in general.

This is not a partisan issue. People differ about whom they want in the White House, but almost everybody wants whoever is there to be seen by all as having been rightfully elected.

Read it all here in Wednesday's Philadelphia Inquirer.