Accuracy and Other Illusions
December 5, 2000
the most grotesque presidential election in American history,
everyone is proposing reforms to prevent the recurrence of a situation so
freakish that it wont recur in a thousand years.
It was freakish in three distinct
First, the country was divided evenly,
in both the popular vote and electoral votes. This is rare enough.
Second, the electoral vote totals
depended on a single state that was also evenly divided. This was the most
Third, the governor of the crucial
state happened to be the brother of one of the presidential candidates.
What are the odds against all three of
these conditions occurring together? A million to one?
But it was the second condition that
was most problematic. When two candidates are separated by a handful of
votes, there is no meaningful or satisfactory way to determine the
real winner. The margin of victory is bound to be much
smaller than the number of votes lost by mischance, error, and other
accidental factors we usually forget including the subjective
judgments of those who count the votes.
Simpson murder trial reminded us that criminal justice is a messier
process than we like to assume. Before that, most of us took it for granted
that when a criminal leaves physical evidence at the crime scene, the
police will find it, the prosecution will present it, and the jury will
convict. But we found that clever lawyers can work malign wonders,
especially when the prosecutors are inept. There turned out to be plenty of
room for manipulation of seemingly clear-cut facts.
Similarly, the Florida vote shook us
out of the pleasant assumption that the modern voting machine guarantees
an automatic tabulation of the will of the people. There was
enough confusion even before the lawyers got into the act with their
dizzying prestidigitation. Raw numbers create the illusion of exactitude
where the reality is ambiguous.
But Al Gores partisans kept
insisting that there was a real winner in Florida who could
be ascertained by (selective) recounts. They also assumed that
Gores thin edge in the national popular vote constituted a
definitive will of the people though this edge too
was well within the normal margin of error, even setting aside the vote
fraud endemic to big cities where one party is dominant.
If only one in every hundred votes
cast across the country was lost, miscounted, or stolen, we cant
say with any assurance that Gore won the popular vote. An
absolutely complete, honest, and accurate count, if it were possible, could
have gone either way.
All these considerations should cause
us to reopen some old questions. What is the moral basis of majority rule,
anyway? Does the fact that one party wins more than 50 per cent of the
vote (and none did this year) entitle it to impose its will by force? Can a
majority of the voters authorize the winner to coerce the entire
population? Can sheer numbers make right what is intrinsically
A popular vote may provide a useful
mode of succession. It may be preferable to hereditary rule or to a raw,
violent struggle for power. But it cant authorize a government to
expand its powers beyond the bounds of natural justice. It cant
justify taxing some people for the benefit of others. The majority has no
more right to rob the minority than to exterminate it.
The more excessive the powers of
government, the more bitter elections are bound to be. If government were
limited to a few modest powers, the stakes in any election would be
small, and it wouldnt be worthwhile to spend huge sums of money
to help one candidate win.
Those who demand campaign finance
reform are approaching the problem from the wrong end. Big government
creates pressure for lavish campaign spending. Limited government
Our liberty should never depend on
who wins an election. Thats what the Constitution is for: to ensure
that no matter who wins, our freedom is not at risk. Unfortunately, this is
far from the case. In fact both major parties now stand for predatory
When your real problem is
constitutional, you cant solve it by improving methods of counting
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