Mismeasure of the Vote

Thesis: The subjective evaluation of ballots in the recount conducted in selected counties in Florida is apt to inadvertently comply with the prejudices of those who perform the evaluation. The consequence is the “mismeasure of the vote.”

One myth used to sustain the stature of scientists is that scientists are impeccably objective and this objectivity is employed in the relentless and unbiased pursuit of the truth. It turns out that, at best, such a noble disinterest remains an honest aspiration, not an accomplished fact. Even the best scientist graced with the best intentions can, if not very careful, be fooled by the unconscious drafting of data to the service of their own preconceived notions and prejudices.

In his seminal work, The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould documents how the implicit assumptions of nineteenth century scientists about the intellectual superiority of whites permitted them to use quantitative measurements to “prove” their notions on the ranking of human intelligence.

Extrapolating from the rough interspecies association between relative brain size and intelligence, nineteenth century scientists like Samuel George Morton used brain size as an intraspecies measure of human intelligence. As a substitute for actual brain measurements, cranial capacities were measured by filling skulls with seeds or beads. Results were correlated with race. The experiment lent itself to self-deception.

As skulls were filled, these scientists could jiggle a dishearteningly small skull from a white person to fit in a few more beads. A conspicuously small skull from a white person might be discarded because of uncertainty in the skull’s origin. Similarly, a suspiciously large skull from a black person might be put aside on similar grounds. In addition, the normalizations of skull size base on age and sex from non-representative data samples allowed room for further fudging. To no one’s surprise, the results “scientifically” ranked whites at the top of the intelligence scale, blacks at the bottom, and others in between.

Deliberate skewing of results by mean-spirited racists might be expected, but Gould concludes upon examination of the original data, that the errors in analysis were largely inadvertent. Their own preconceived ideas fooled scientists as they “directed … tabulations along pre-established lines.”

Scientists, like other humans, will never be perfect. Even aware of the possibility of self-deception, they can still fail to see beyond the blinders of their own expectations. They must be vigilant and employ techniques like “double-blind” studies to shield themselves from unintentional bias.

One method to avoid self-deception is to establish specific rules before hand for data interpretation and culling anomalous data, and to decide upon criteria for the classification of results.

The recent hand recount schemes employed in the Florida elections fall dangerously close to the fallacy of possible self-deception. Despite known imprecision in punch card ballots, the possibility of confused voters, and dangling chads, both Democrats and Republicans agreed to the machine tabulation of ballots. If hand counts were necessary, Palm Beach County had a written policy to ignore “dimpled” chads as inconclusive. Although it is possible in some cases to make a reasonable guess as to “voter intent,” machine counts and rigorous rules for ballot acceptance retain the virtue of impartiality and hence fairness and credibility.

From a distance, it appears that some Florida counties have jettisoned objective and repeatable methodology for manual counts in the service of manufacturing votes for Al Gore. Palm Beach resorted to inferring presidential choices from dimpled ballots despite a pre-election policy to the contrary. Gadsdsen County produced Gore votes by an unknown procedure hidden from public view in violation of law.

Broward County election officials were the most creative. There they judged dimpled ballots on the basis of the votes for other candidates on the same ballot, as if “ticket splitting” were not an American tradition.

Like the nineteenth century scientist using a thumb to force as many beads into a white skull as possible, Broward election officials examined and re-examined ballots in the hopes of harvesting barely discernable indentations into Gore votes. Even if we grant honest intentions, such a situation is fraught with subjectivity. The Florida recount has descended into the “mismeasure of the vote.”

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