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Discerning Voter Intent in the Minnesota Recount PDF Print Email
By Ed Felten, Princeton University   
November 22, 2008
This article was posted at Ed Felten's Freedom-to-Tinker Blog and is reposted here with permission.

Minnesota election officials are hand-counting millions of ballots, as they perform a full recount in the ultra-close Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Minnesota Public Radio offers a fascinating gallery of ballots that generated disputes about voter intent.

A good example is this one:



A scanning machine would see the Coleman and Franken bubbles both filled, and call this ballot an overvote. But this might be a Franken vote, if the voter filled in both slots by mistake, then wrote "No" next to Coleman's name.

Other cases are more difficult, like this one:



Do we call this an overvote, because two bubbles are filled? Or do we give the vote to Coleman, because his bubble was filled in more completely?


Then there's this ballot, which is destined to be famous if the recount descends into ligitation:


[Insert your own joke here.]

This one raises yet another issue:



Here the problem is the fingerprint on the ballot. Election laws prohibit voters from putting distinguishing marks on their ballots, and marked ballots are declared invalid, for good reason: uniquely marked ballots can be identified later, allowing a criminal to pay the voter for voting "correctly" or punish him for voting "incorrectly". Is the fingerprint here an identifying mark? And if so, how can you reject this ballot and accept the distinctive "Lizard People" ballot?

Many e-voting experts advocate optical-scan voting. The ballots above illustrate one argument against opscan: filling in the ballot is a free-form activity that can create ambiguous or identifiable ballots. This creates a problem in super-close elections, because ambiguous ballots may make it impossible to agree on who should have won the election.

Wearing my pure-scientist hat (which I still own, though it sometimes gets dusty), this is unsurprising: an election is a measurement process, and all measurement processes have built-in errors that can make the result uncertain. This is easily dealt with, by saying something like this: Candidate A won by 73 votes, plus or minus a 95% confidence interval of 281 votes. Or perhaps this: Candidate A won with 57% probability. Problem solved!

In the real world, of course, we need to declare exactly one candidate to be the winner, and a lot can be at stake in the decision. If the evidence is truly ambiguous, somebody is going to end up feeling cheated, and the most we can hope for is a sense that the rules were properly followed in determining the outcome.

Still, we need to keep this in perspective. By all reports, the number of ambiguous ballots in Minnesota is miniscule, compared to the total number cast in Minnesota. Let's hope that, even if some individual ballots don't speak clearly, the ballots taken collectively leave no doubt as to the winner.

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