Investigating an election because its outcome is too improbable


Fast-forward to November 2020. On the eve of election day, Kamala Harris holds a commanding 20-percentage point lead in all polls over Donald Trump. Moreover, she has led by double digits in all polls since August, and the Electoral College maps all show her poised to carry 500 or more EVs.

But just 24 hours later, the nation is shocked as Trump not only staves off defeat, but in fact utterly crushes Harris by 20 percentage points in the popular vote and wins over 500 EVs.

Now (** and please, please do NOT challenge the wild implausibility of such an event)** :wink: …would this lead to a governmental investigation/board of inquiry of some sort? It would flout virtually all polling science and history and be too big an anomaly to be shrugged off as “We were just a little bit off and sometimes low- likelihood events do happen” as they were with Trump beating Hillary in 2016.

There couldn’t be recounts (recounts are only for close elections,) but could a federal investigation be launched simply because the event utterly defies probability and suggests foul play? Is there legal precedent or provision for this kind of challenge to the election results to overturn them?

Why are you trusting the opinion polls? The percentages were much less but you should look at the 1992 UK general election and the ‘Shy Tory factor’. Just because the opinion polls say one thing and the result another doesn’t mean that the opinion polls are correct. They got it wrong in 2016, didn’t they?

The Left has long been hostile to people not on the left - one only has to look at the Dope to see that - so people tend not admit to not voting left unless they feel comfortable admitting so. Or they don’t give a damn. And the pollsters didn’t account for that.

To reverse your OP, what if someone (tinfoil hat conspiracy alert!) conned the pollsters into publishing consistently inaccurate opinion polls?

So first you investigate the opinion polls. Assume incompetence rather than malice.

The national polling was very good in 2016 (the state polling was less good but that’s always the case).

I doubt any real investigation would happen. That kind of crazy disparity would be a big flashing warning sign of problems that go so deep as to undermine the legitimacy of the entire government, top to bottom.

If the Dems still had control of the House or gained control of the Senate, sure.

But the only way that could happen is if someone manipulated the Presidential results in all the blue/purple states, but forgot to monkey with the House/Senate results.

In an actual Trump landslide of that sort, or a more successfully-run manipulation of the results, there’d be something like 300 Republicans in the House, they’d pick up Senate seats too. There’d be nobody at the Federal level in a position to investigate who’d want to do so.

Now the governors and state legislatures of Dem-controlled states that got caught in this reversal - they would investigate. (Other than those governors/legislatures with elections in Presidential years, of course. But the vast majority of states choose their governors and legislatures in years not divisible by 4.)

And after they investigated, the results would be duly noted, and be news for a few days, and then what? Not much.

A Robin Williams movie had a plot sort of like this. In the movie Williams is elected president because of a bug in the software for voting machines. An employee of the voting machine company finds the bug and tells him and he tells the public about the bug and says he wont’ accept being president.

Please try to keep your partisan talking points self-consistent. You just argued that the OP’s situation would be even more implausible.

Because if in the body of multiple different polling in a free political economy where the pollsters are free to design and report sans the censorship, the double digit results for the large scale and repeated polls will normally be well outside of the margin of error of the statistical samples.

No, the opinion polls in 2016 did not get results wrong, it is simply most people do not understand statistics and what the statistical polling numbers represent. The results of the elections in the USA and even your Brexit are very consistent with the body of the polling and the the variances (also for the usa it was a reminder the american elections are not a true national result, but truly state level).

that is the fault of bad mathematics sense and education, and persons as here repeating the mathematics-statistics illiterate misconceptions.

this is the realm of the comic books. It is not plausible to have a wide body of different pollsters making ‘consistently inaccurate polls.’ Except in the circumstances of the government control and censorship.

I do not know what US federal law allows, your recent experiences suggest that your laws are not to date, you have safely been able to reply on tradition and habit - the famous norms - for a long time but when this breaks down…

In fact in the political transition countries or similar, it is indeed suspicious divergences that the professional election specialists monitors are looking for and identifying - from both the polling if there is available and relative to the known voter body of the districts.

No, not really. (We’ve hashed this out enough in other Dope threads that I’m not going to relitigate that.)

For all I know, that may be true on your side of the pond. But other than an effect having to do with African-American candidates for office, I can’t recall anything like that over here. Cite?

The states could refuse to certify the election results. Quite frankly, I think that would result is a constitutional crisis and likely civil war, but hey, whadda ya gonna do?

Probably not. You have to assume that if some organization rigged the presidential election they would also make sure to rig congressional elections if they weren’t otherwise sure of a majority there.

We’ve passed out of the era when our elected officials investigated issues like this out of a sense of upholding the law. Investigations on political issues are now only conducted when the party in power expects to gain a political advantage out of it. And if one party gained power via rigged elections, they would see no advantage in investigating the rigging of those elections.

If something like that happened ina single state that used a single voting technology (or mostly used one technology) I would want it investigated. But as a nation, there are so many different people using so many different methods of counting votes, that i really can’t think of any mechanism for foul play to affect them all.

First, I’m so glad to know that those of us on the liberal end of the SD contingent are representative of “the left” in its entirety.

But as far as “the polls” getting 2016 wrong, people need to remember that “the polls” encompass more than just those polls conducted at the behest of the media. They also include those conducted by the candidate organizations themselves and in 2016 the polling for both candidates showed a Hillary victory to be likely in the extreme. Now, one could argue that the media polls are slanted to favor one party or candidate over another (although the likeliest tack the media would take would be to try to slant polling results to make the election seem closer than it actually is, better for business that way). But if your polling for a candidate you want the results to be as accurate as possible because candidate organizations allocate resources (ad buys, and the most precious resource of all, the candidate’s time) based on those polls.

As Tom Zarek said on NUBSG " I’ve seen a lot of elections, Gaius. Most honest, a few fixed. And you can always tell the fixed ones because they don’t make sense. And this doesn’t make sense."

That sounds like what happened in Iran in 2009.

If that did happen there would be massive protests in the streets, but the GOP obviously wouldn’t investigate. If the democrats controlled at least one house of congress, there would be an investigation though.

And I’m assuming in blue states, the democratic AGs would investigate voting irregularities.

Maybe the FBI, NSA, CIA, etc would get involved too, but I’m not sure to what degree.

But thats about it.

On an unrelated note, aren’t exit polls used to verify the validity of an election? I thought this was common practice among illiberal democracies all over the world where third parties are investigating the legitimacy of elections.

However in the US, when the exit polls are wrong we just say ‘the exit polls were done improperly’. How do we know when the exit polls are wrong vs when the exit polls are correct and there is fraud? It seems to be the default move to assume the exit polls are always wrong.

I heard on the radio some commentators saying that because exit polls show voters are more educated than the general public, that they can’t be trusted. But that is to be expected isn’t it, because higher education leads to higher voter turnout. The electorate on the whole is whiter, richer, older, more educated, and more female than the general public because whites, the well off, the middle aged and older, the well educated and women have higher voter turnout rates.
Their argument seemed to imply that exit polls should reflect demographics of the public. But I don’t see how that is possible when voter turnout is different among different demographics. In elections, ex-felons will be under-represented because their turnout is 20%, while people with graduate degrees will be over-represented because their turnout is 80%.

Point being, what role do exit polls play in validating elections? What tools are used in developing democracies to ensure an election is free, fair and honest?

Thank you for demonstrating that point.

Exit polls are regarded as more accurate because they remove the one factor where most pre-election polls stumble and that is “likely voters” who end up not actually voting or who change their minds between being polled and actually voting. With the exit poll you know they’ve actually voted and there can be no mind changing. The only remaining problem is misrepresentation.

Yes, much much much less. You are fighting the hypothetical by equating a 40 point swing to what that wiki article that describes-- a 3-4% miss on Tory votes.

Point of information: In 33 states + DC, laws require that the counting of votes be audited no matter what the results were. The remedy, if discrepancies are found in a sample audit, is usually a recount, though the scopes and types of those recounts vary. (Yay federalism.)

The hypothetical is interesting, though completely implausible (sorry). I think there are three broad categories of response that I’ll call “bureaucratic,” “political,” and "non-governmental." These names are probably lazy and bad, but here’s what I mean…

  1. By “bureaucratic” I mean actions taken by government officials under whose purview potential election-related crimes would fall: secretaries of state, registrars of voters, various law enforcement agencies, and the like. I would absolutely expect investigations by many of those officials and agencies in this scenario; they already investigate allegations of election crime – most of which come to naught, but it’s their job, so they do it.

  2. But legislators at all levels (yay federalism) have the power to conduct investigations, and in these cases it’s going to be a political question, resolved politically, based on the balance of power within each chamber of Congress/state leg/county board/whatever. And, of course, on the specific character/situation/ambition of every legislator who gets to vote on whether to investigate.

I would expect that in the OP’s hypothetical, relatively few elected Republicans would sign on to investigations – sorry, Republican fans, but recent behavior by your legislators makes this a safe inference, IMHO.

Swap the parties, and I’m much less sure about what would happen; “count every vote, even if we lose thereby” has been Democratic rhetoric in contested elections since at least 2000, and I imagine there would be intra- and extra-party pressure to hold them to that. Would that pressure work? Are Democratic legislators more likely to stick to principle before party?

  1. And of course we have non-governmental institutions that would investigate the election. Media organizations, natch. Also various think tanks and public advocacy groups. The goo-goos (good-government types).

One last point: basically, all of the solutions to any finding of malfeasance in this situation are political – right? Here are some I can think of, details varying by state (yay federalism):

  • state legislatures overriding vote counts
  • pressure on EC electors to be faithless
  • Congress refusing to ratify EC results, taking election to House/Senate
  • post-inauguration, impeachment and removal.
    The lack of an apolitical solution ultimately means that all investigations are highly prone to politicization. For this reason, the chances of developing a fact-based, bipartisan consensus on what, if anything, went wrong would, IMHO, be pretty low.