Re: what does "random" mean to you?

From: Stephanie Frank Singer <sfsinger_at_campaignscientific_dot_com>
Date: Wed Jun 15 2005 - 14:24:10 CDT

Colleagues,

I'm busy lobbying this week, so I haven't been following the discussion
of NIST standards closely. But I hope that as you continue to pore
over them, you will keep the following issue in mind:

Consider this text from HR 550, Rush Holt's bill introduced in the US
House of Reps:

  (1) IN GENERAL- The Election Assistance Commission shall conduct
random, unannounced, hand counts of the voter-verified records required
to be produced and preserved pursuant to section 301(a)(2) of the Help
America Vote Act of 2002 (as amended by section 2) for each general
election for Federal office (and, at the option of the State or
jurisdiction involved, of elections for State and local office held at
the same time as such an election for Federal office) in at least 2
percent of the precincts (or equivalent locations) in each State.

If I had to implement this law, I would take a standard list of
precincts for my state, number it 1 to N (where N is the total number
of precincts), use a well-regarded random number generator (say,
whatever they use for the lottery) to pick at least 0.02*N numbers
between 1 and N and then initiate hand-counts in the corresponding
precincts.

Well-meaning lawmakers and judges might have a different understanding
of what "random" means. Here's an anecdote to back me up. Just before
the 2005 Pennsylvania primary election, I volunteered with the
Committee of Seventy, a venerable Philadelphia nonpartisan election
watchdog group, to inspect voting machines in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia precincts are grouped into about 60 "wards", each of which
has about 20 precincts in it. The Committee of Seventy staffer who
took the group to the election-machine warehouse explained that we
would be testing two "random" voting machines from each ward. How did
he generate his random choice of machines? Well, he just picked two
precincts out of thin air and wrote them down. I.e., he used his own
mind as a random number generator. There's one more thing you should
know: each precinct has not one but two machines! And guess what: in
none of the wards had he "randomly" selected two machines from the same
precinct for inspection.

My point is that because the people writing and implementing these laws
may take "random" to mean "evenly distributed," we may want to make
clear wherever it is possible and appropriate that the law should
require the technically correct meaning of "random".

Stephanie Frank Singer, Ph.D.
Campaign Scientific
215-715-3479
www.campaignscientific.com

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Received on Thu Jun 30 23:17:08 2005

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