Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Election Fraud That Wasn't

Curmie Award and eight consecutive education-related entries notwithstanding—this was never intended as an education blog. It was always intended to be wide-ranging, often political, and more of an excuse to keep up my writing skills than anything else. So, despite a couple education stories on the back burner, we return to politics… or a variation on the theme, at least.

There’s one of those crazy conspiracy theory e-mails currently making the rounds of late—this one claiming all manner of election fraud, because (subtext) real Americans wouldn’t vote for a black Kenyan Indonesian fascist socialist Muslim atheist like Barack Obama. Oh, and the media are engaged in some huge cover-up because they’re all Anti-American Commie pinko feminazi bi-sexuals. They’re probably left-handed, too, but some of them cover it up pretty well. Such inanities are neither new nor the exclusive purview of the lunatic right: there’s all kinds of stuff out there about how Anonymous prevented Karl Rove’s minions from stealing Ohio in 2012 (just like he did in 2004), and similar flights of fancy. But there’s a difference between this particular delusion and most of its predecessors on both the left and the right: there isn’t just a lack of evidence this time; the claims (well, most of them, anyway) are demonstrably false.

It is certainly possible that more Florida voters in 2000 intended to vote for Al Gore than intended to vote for George W. Bush, although, as I’ve said before, “people too stupid to figure out a ballot disproportionately supported our guy” kind of lacks pizzazz as a rallying cry. It’s even plausible—extremely unlikely but plausible—that Bush didn’t really get more votes in Ohio than John Kerry did in 2004. The key thing here is that we don’t know, so the more paranoid members of the losing side are granted a certain amount of free rein for their fantasies.

This time, however, there are specific claims that can be put to the test, and our friends at did precisely that. I’d actually seen a variation on this e-mail posted on Facebook by a conservative acquaintance (FB terminology to the contrary notwithstanding, I seriously doubt that I could call anyone who believes this crap a “friend”). There are a total of eight claims in the version of the e-mail examined by Snopes. Of these, Snopes finds precisely zero to have merit. Surprise!

To be fair, I’m a little skeptical myself that there are 59 Philadelphia-area voting districts in which Mitt Romney didn’t receive a single vote. The e-mail claims that’s “a mathematical and statistical impossibility.” Snopes, citing research from the Philadelphia Inquirer sees evidence only of “a general historical trend widely seen throughout the city.” And they literally couldn’t find a Republican voter in some of those precincts. So… maybe…

True, Philadelphia voted 85-14 for Obama, and no one expected (or should have expected) anything but a blowout. Interestingly, Obama won slightly less convincingly than most of the other Democrats did in that area. Still, no votes for Romney in 59 voting districts? Hmm…

OK, so Romney won only 7% of the African-American vote nationally. And let’s say that an urban black voter in the City of Brotherly Love is 100 times less likely to vote for Romney than the national average. That puts the GOP challenger at .07 percent likelihood of getting the vote of an individual, randomly selected, African-American Philadelphian. But the article says the areas in question often contain “between 200 and 500 voters,” and remember, there are 59 of them. If we go with the lowest number, that’s 11800 votes (200 times 59) with nary a Romney supporter. The chances of some one person voting against Romney, then, are 99.93%; the chances of every person voting against Romney are (.9993)^11800, or roughly 0.025%. That’s about 1 chance in 4000. No, that’s not quite on the scale of probability numbers for, say, global warming. And it’s not “a mathematical and statistical impossibility.” But do I think there was some manipulation or suppression or other chicanery? Yes. Yes, I do.

And the fact that the numbers this year mirror those of four years ago isn’t proof of a fair election, only of an equally fair election to a previous one that might well have been rigged in the same way.

Indeed, the strongest argument that all those people really did vote for Obama (or at least not for Romney) is the palpable desperation of the rest of the e-mail. (This is a repeat of the phenomenon I refer to as the Christine Vole effect, by which an essential truth is overlooked because it is surrounded by so many untruths.) My personal favorites are the next two on the list, both dealing specifically with Wood County (i.e., Bowling Green), Ohio. You see, “[in] 21 districts… Obama received 100% of the votes where GOP Inspectors were illegally removed from their polling locations—and not one single vote was recorded for Romney. (Another statistical impossibility.)” Moreover, “106,258 voted in a county with only 98,213 eligible voters.”

This is indeed damning evidence… or, rather, it would be if there were a grain of truth in it. Alas for the tin-foil hat brigade, there is not. All it takes, really, is a glance at the official numbers. Snopes did that; the creator of the viral e-mail either didn’t bother, can’t read, or didn’t think anyone else would check. Any way you slice it, s/he just made shit up. The precinct-by-precinct breakdown shows that, whether “GOP Inspectors were illegally removed” or not, and I’m skeptical at best of the claim, the fact is that President Obama didn’t get all the votes anywhere in Wood County, let alone in 21 different locations: Obama won the county fairly narrowly, 51-46; his widest margin was 76-23. And no, there weren’t more votes than eligible voters: in fact 64,342 votes were counted from 108,014 eligible voters. Where those other numbers came from is anybody’s guess, but they certainly bespeak a higher priority on proving a point than on telling the truth.

Ohio—this time Ohio County (state unknown) also figures into another of the e-mailer’s delusions: that “[in] Ohio County, Obama won by 108% of the total number of eligible voters.” The fact that this “sentence” is such a grammatical and syntactical nightmare that I’m not even sure what it’s intended to say is, in and of itself, a pretty fair indication of the intellectual rigor involved (a point I make repeatedly, and with little success, to my students). But, as Snopes points out, there are three Ohio Counties in the country (in Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia), and Romney won them all. Or was that supposed to be “in an (unnamed) Ohio County”? After all, the demonstrably false numbers for Wood County do show a 108% voter turnout. Who knows? But, again as I tell my students all the time, I’m going to grade your paper based on what you said, not on a best-case scenario of what I think you might have meant. And if the best case is that you’re repeating a point as if it were further evidence, and that point is founded on absurdly faulty data, well, your best course of action just might be to STFU.

Snopes debunks the rest of the allegations, too, but they fall at least within hailing distance of honest mistakes: a confusion between “cards” and “ballots” in Florida, and an overstatement about the relationship between voter ID laws and Obama’s success: it is (predictably) true that Governor Romney won every state that required a photo ID (photo ID being the GOP’s selected cause to pretend to care about fair elections), but he also won a lot of states that don’t have such a requirement, at least not yet.

It shouldn’t escape our notice that every allegation of impropriety was in FLOHPA. No one in over a half century has won the presidency without winning at least two of the three, all of which are nominally “battleground states,” although Pennsylvania is, as Nate Silver points out, “the only state in the nation that has been unfailingly Democratic-leaning relative to the national popular vote in every presidential election since 1950” (in other words, Republicans carry it not infrequently, but only by lesser margins than the national popular vote). To me, that’s another variation on the theme of why the Electoral College is an anachronism at best and an anti-democratic leviathan at worst, but that’s a rant for another day. And it shouldn’t surprise us that Ohio, where the loony left is convinced George W. Bush’s minions stole the 2004 election, and Florida, where even rational people of both parties were skeptical about the 2000 debacle, should not be the subject of ululation from the loony right.

Was there actual fraud in Philadelphia? It isn’t certain, but I think the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” is operative. This isn’t, of course, a Democratic-specific phenomenon, although the first examples to come to mind—Albany, NY; Washington, DC; and of course Chicago—are notorious for their Democratic “machines.” One of the most memorable faculty meetings I ever attended featured a resolution by a friend in the Sociology Department that if local politicians insist on bribing our students to vote for them, at least they do so off campus. The proposal went nowhere, with one senior professor chastising his junior and (gasp) Yankee colleague for seeking to “change the local way of life.” (Much chuckling ensued.) That was the GOP in Kentucky, for those of you keeping score at home.

At the very least, such allegations are legitimate interpretations of available evidence. But while the ethics of voter fraud are the same regardless of the outcome, it is still relevant that President Obama would have won the election without Pennsylvania, and would have won Pennsylvania even if he took only 90% instead of 100% of the votes in those Philadelphia polling places.

But the whole point here is to de-legitimize President Obama’s re-election. And that is serious business: not merely unethical, but seditious. I don’t care what your politics are, undermining faith in the electoral process without something more compelling than made-up numbers is intensely damaging to the nation. Look, I think my current Congresscritter, Louie Gohmert, is one of the biggest buffoons ever to trod the planet. The district’s cumulative IQ goes up a couple of points every time he heads off to Washington. If there were anything I could do, legally and ethically, to get him replaced by someone chosen at random from the local phone book, I’d jump at the opportunity. But I have no doubt that he got more votes than his opponent in November. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll stop embarrassing us. Who knows? Maybe someday he’ll get too crazy to be re-elected even in this gerrymandered safe district. Until then, though, he’s what we’ve got, and we need to find a way to carry on.

This is a tactic I recommend to my colleagues on the right. Because, as the checking before forwarding dumb e-mails Facebook page commented on their link to the Snopes article, “Sore losers or actually fraud? Looks more like the first.” Yep, sure does. And that hurts us all.


tgt said...

Your comments on the Philadelphia votes bastardize statistics. The most important piece is that you assume that people in local groups are entirely independent. They aren't.

Next, your "100 times less likely" number is pulled out of your ass. Why is it 100 times less likely and not 10 times less likely or 1000 times less likely? Why is the urban black vote completely grouped together? Members of the projects are not the same as upperscale blacks.

Last, while you do properly say that the correlation to previous years is not proof that this year was fair, you leave out that the lack of mention of previous year votes is evidence of bad faith.

manjushri924 said...

Oh, come on.

I have no doubt that votes would have been unanimous had they been conducted publicly. That's why we have a secret ballot.

I teach theatre in a state university. Not surprisingly, given the antipathy of the GOP towards both the arts and public education at all levels, the majority of my students voted for Obama. But not all of them did. My former Dean (now Provost)in the College of Fine Arts, my current Dean, and the Associate Dean are all Republicans. That's the point. Unanimity is inherently suspicious. 11,800 for 11,800 is worthy of a raised eyebrow, regardless of the circumstances. Hell, Fidel Castro didn't put up that kind of percentage.

Of course "100 times less likely" is an arbitrary figure, and it's presented as such. I think it's high, if anything. 5-10 times more likely is a lot more plausible. But let's say it's wrong in the other direction. Let's say it is 1000. So that makes the chances of a unanimous vote about 44%. That's assuming each individual is 99.993% likely to vote for Obama.

Of course, the lack of reference to previous years is sloppy. But leaving out information is hardly on the same scale as making stuff up out of whole cloth.