Your Vote Can't Really Be Counted, So Vote as You Please


Voting machine

Since this is the "most important presidential election" of our lives (the tenth or eleventh such that I can remember), you're no doubt on the receiving end of escalating entreaties to use your vote wisely to save our nation from the dread clutches of that bastard — whichever bastard it might be. You need to vote for the "right" candidate, however imperfect he may be, and not fritter it away on somebody you actually find non-repulsive, or on oh-so-foolishly avoiding the polls at all out of naive disgust with the whole process. There are more than a few problems with this argument, but let's focus on one: Your vote doesn't make a damned bit of difference.

Leave aside the fact that, even in a (decreasingly so) squeaker of a presidential election, most of us are voting for electors in states where the outcome is already pretty certain. The fact is, even down to the level of most municipal elections, our votes are statistically insignificant even if they were being accurately counted. But in this imperfect world of ours, accuracy is a tough thing to come by. As the Seattle Times put it during the count and recount after the nail-biter of a gubernatorial election between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire:

Elections work fine when candidates win by a large margin. When victory comes down to roughly the capacity of a Metro bus, small errors — stray marks on ballots, punch cards that weren't punched properly and human mistakes — can cloud the final vote tally.

Like survey polls that try to show what people are thinking, elections have what statisticians call a margin of error.

Optically scanned ballot

Those margins of error vary from voting system to voting system, and even within voting systems depending on the diligence with which they're administered and maintained. But once you're past the level of a few friends picking a place to grab drinks, there's no such thing as winning a race by a single vote.

Even experts can't agree. It's not clear whether humans or machines are better at vote counting.

But in the end, the question may not matter. No election system is precise enough to determine who won a race this close, they say. Only 42 votes separate Rossi and Gregoire, out of the millions cast.

"It's closer than the technology and our capacity as humans to decipher," said Jeffery Mondak, a political-science professor at Florida State University. "You folks would do as well to flip a coin as to try to determine who actually won."

Just 42 votes out of millions cast is razor-thin, for sure. But just how much slop is there in the counting of votes? Turns out … Quite a hell of a lot. Researchers say (PDF) that the average "residual vote rate" (that is, the percentage of ballots for which a valid vote couldn't be determined) across different voting systems was 1.8 percent in 2000, 2.0 percent in 2002 and 1.8 percent in 2004.

And those down-to-the wire recounts during which ballots are carefully scrutinized by hand to determine who really represents the will of the people? Well, ScienceDaily told us earlier this year:

Hand counting of votes in postelection audit or recount procedures can result in error rates of up to 2 percent, according to a new study from Rice University and Clemson University.

So, in those close elections, flip a coin to pick the "winner." And vote, or not, just to please yourself.