In the Margins: Recounts, Victory and Error in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Elections
Philip N. Howard
Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs; University of Washington - Department of Communication; University of Washington - Henry. M. Jackson School of International Studies; University of Washington - The Information School
November 3, 2008
In very close elections, the margin of error for the system of collecting and counting votes may be greater than the margin of victory for a candidate, such that recounts are unable to determine winners. We identify the electoral contests in which the margin of victory for the winning candidate was less than the margins of error for technologies and organizations that administered the election: in 2000, forty eight Electoral College votes, fifteen US House races, one US Senate seat, and one Governor; in 2004, sixteen Electoral College votes, four US House races, one US Senate seat, and one Governor. In each case, the legitimacy of electoral outcomes comes more from elections officials than the electorate, because in very close races the voting process cannot reveal electoral intent. We evaluate three ways of measuring error in an election. First, we theorize organizational error, and calculate a residual vote rate as one way of expressing error in election administration. Second, we theorize technology error, and calculate a residual vote rate as one way of expressing error in the voting technologies. Finally, we theorize a form of user error, and calculate a ratio of Election Day incidents to voting-eligible population as one way of expressing user error. We compare the strengths and weaknesses of these metrics. Public policy solutions are offered, such as run-off elections, standardized data reporting about error rates, more rigorous exit polling, and open source technology solutions.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 41
Keywords: Recount, Voting Technology, Election Errors, Close Electionsworking papers series
Date posted: November 5, 2008
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