When a statistical survey is taken, there are several steps at which error can occur. Most of them have to do with whether those people actually surveyed are a representative sample of the population you wanted to gather information about. Fortunately, none of that applies to an election (and, yes, this is about that): you assume that the people who cared to get to the polling place and vote are the people who are supposed to decide the issue.
However, once you get a ballot into the voters’ hands, there are still two types of potential error worth discussing: variance and bias. Mind if I use an analogy?
Suppose you weigh 175 pounds. You step on the bathroom scale a bunch of times; it gives you a range of numbers between 170 and 180. That’s variance: the scale isn’t giving you an exactly correct reading, but any error you get is just as likely to be in one direction as in the other.
Now suppose your scale instead consistently reads 168 when you step on it. That’s bias: it’s giving you a reading that’s consistently skewed to one side.
Statisticians are willing to live with variance; a certain amount of it is inevitable. We like to try to keep it small where we can, but variance, like the poor, will always be with us. But bias, OTOH, is just plain bad: it gives you false results.
Now, let’s talk about Palm Beach.
People have been saying that there are always going to be voting errors; not every vote will be recorded correctly. As a Census Bureau employee, I have a fairly good grasp on the problems involved in counting every American correctly; I not only sympathize with the voting officials when they say that, but agree 100% that that’s the case. There’s no way to get rid of noise and random error in the system, no matter how much money you spend to make a perfect process.
The problem with the Palm Beach ballot is that every bit of evidence suggests that the ballot introduced bias into the result. If what you’re trying to measure is, “How many more Palm Beach voters intended to vote for Gore than for Bush?”, then it’s hard to argue that this ballot was as likely to overstate that number as it was to understate it.
First, there’s the evidence of our eyes: you look at the ballot, and it’s pretty clear that if anyone’s going to be confused about where to punch that card, it’s going to be a voter who’s trying to vote for one of the names somewhere in the middle of the ballot (such as Gore, or Browne, or Nader); if voting for a candidate at the very top (such as Bush) or very bottom, it’s pretty hard to get it wrong.
Second, there’s the anecdotal evidence. Many people have come forward, saying they thought they voted for Gore, but now believe they accidentally voted for Buchanan. If any Bush voters were in the same quandary, they’ve been pretty quiet.
Third, there’s Buchanan’s extremely high PBC vote total - 3.5 times as many votes in PBC as in any other county.
Now if the bias is small, it should be ignored. If it caused a shift of 20 votes out of the Gore column, then who cares? But the possibility exists that the ballot may have shifted thousands of votes out of the Gore column, turning them into either Buchanan votes or into double-counts.
There’s ways of measuring the size of the bias. The best way would be to use the same structure of ballot for something completely unrelated to the election, like which candy bar the persons surveyed prefer. They can punch the ballot, then they can be asked which candy bar they chose. If the numbers are skewed in ways that correspond with poition on the ballot, then you know you’ve got a biased ballot, and you can measure the approximate strength of the bias.
Or you can look at the double-counts. There are 19,120 ballots which were disqualified in the Presidential voting for double-punching. Given the unlikelihood that more than a few people were in the voting booths, agonizing over whether to vote for Gore or Buchanan, we can assume that just about all Gore-Buchanan double-punches were accidental. Tossing out any ballots with three or more holes punched, we can total up how many people double-punched (a) Bush and Buchanan; (b) Gore and Buchanan; © Bush and anyone besides Gore and Buchanan; (d) Gore and anyone besides Bush and Buchanan.
If (b) sticks out like a sore thumb among the totals, then it’s hard to see how anyone could argue that Gore wasn’t losing thousands of votes to the confusion over which hole to punch. If as many double-punches involve Bush as involve Gore, then you’d have to conclude that RT’s been making a big deal out of nothing here. And you could get a lot of results in between.
But I don’t think Palm Beach County should be certified until those 19,120 disqualified ballots are tallied to see just who the double-punches involve. You can put up with a lot of variance, and even a little bias. But if you’ve got a ballot that is inducing large amounts of bias into the election results, then that’s a different story.