Are errors in elections acceptable/inevitable

From: Teresa Hommel <tahommel_at_earthlink_dot_net>
Date: Sun Jun 19 2005 - 22:36:22 CDT

I'm a computer professional (note, not a computer scientist) and I work primarily for business-type clients, with a few government agencies mixed in. In my work, and in my clients' IT departments, people do what it takes to detect and correct errors before the client sees them, and before they propagate through multiple files and applications. The unprofessionally casual attitudes toward errors and security in general in the elections world is shocking. First of all no one audits to discover errors, and second everyone shrugs them off anyway "Oh a glitch. I'm sure that the election outcome wasn't affected." (if they are so bad that they cause unavoidably obvious inaccuracies and people are forced to acknowledge them).


Hello Teresa and All:

So you believe there should be zero tolerance for errors? Would you advocate that any election with errors be rerun? I can imagine how a determined spoiler could deliberately introduce errors in every election and call attention to them if results were not what they desired.

I'm a civil engineer and I've been taught that random error in inevitable. Engineers are directed to look for systematic errors and compensate for them. For example, there is only a finite precision in surveying equipment. Yes, before anyone says it, the potential error is pretty small with the newer equipment but it is still there. When you dump your total station's data into a computer it always finds an error and redistributes it along the results typically by a least squares method. I suspect this is old news to you with your major statistics background but I'm mentioning it for the benefit of everyone else. Also, before anyone mentions it, obviously, the absolute theoretical limit of accuracy in voting is one vote while survey equipment can continue going for finer and finer divisions of distance and angle.

Do you or anyone else believe that any error beyond one vote is unacceptable? I'm bringing this up (again) because I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to what is the acceptable level of error (say as a percentage of total votes cast) in the voting process. I know that there are rules and laws specifying automatic recounts which could be used as a legal basis for maximum error. I believe these vary substantially from state to state. Does anyone have a summary of these?

Thanks, Ed Kennedy
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Received on Thu Jun 30 23:17:09 2005

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