NYT Op-Ed Column: Franken Behind in MN? Declare It 'Statistical Tie' and Flip Coin for Winner

December 4th, 2008 8:44 AM

In every recount of the senate election from Minnesota, incumbent senator Norm Coleman has consistently been ahead of challenger Al Franken by hundreds of votes. At this point it looks like it will be impossible for Franken to exceed Coleman's total in the recount of the few ballots remaining. So what is the solution of New York Times guest op-ed columnist and associate professor of journalism at New York University, Charles Seife? Why just declare the election a "statistical tie" and flip a coin to determine the winner. Seife explains how he has come up with his laughable resolution for the election in which Coleman continues to lead:

Before the recount began on Nov. 19, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken were within about 200 votes of each other. With a little under three million ballots cast in the election, that margin was unbelievably small: a few thousandths of a percent separated the two candidates. So, as Minnesota law requires, election officials began counting, by hand, every single ballot from the more than 4,000 precincts around the state.

... Even if all missing ballots are found and all the typos are corrected, the recount is still doomed. Just considering precincts where every ballot is accounted for — where Coleman and Franken observers are not challenging votes — there are mistakes.

How can we know this? Before the recount began, the state ran a post-election review to gauge the accuracy of the voting process. The review involved auditors going into select precincts and, like the recounters, counting by hand, doing the most careful job humanly possible. So in some precincts, we have not just a recount but a re-recount. Both auditors and recounters were hypervigilant to possible sources of error, and yet they disagree on their tallies by about 20 thousandths of a percent.

In an ordinary race, errors this tiny wouldn’t be a problem. But the Coleman-Franken race is so close that this error rate is more than double the margin between the two camps. And that’s just taking into account the precincts where there are no challenges. Throw in the weirdo ballots with lizard people, stray marks and indecipherable dots, and the error rate grows even more. Throw in the missing ballots, and the situation is hopeless. In truth, the counting errors dwarf the tiny numerical difference in votes between the two candidates. If, at the end of the recount, Mr. Coleman or Mr. Franken is ahead by a few dozen or a few hundred votes, that would be because of errors rather than voter preference.

Minnesota’s instruments for counting votes are simply too crude to determine the winner in a race this tight. This is not the state’s fault. In fact, Minnesota’s election laws, procedures and equipment are among the best in the country. The problem is that a voting system that is based on physically recounting chits of paper is inherently error-prone, and in a close election like this, the errors are too large for the process to determine a winner. Even though, at the end of the recount, it will seem as if one candidate has won by a hair, the outcome will really be a statistical tie.

Luckily, Minnesota’s electoral law has a provision for ties. After all the counting and recounting, if the vote is statistically tied, the state should invoke the section of the law that requires the victor to be chosen by lot. It’s hard to swallow, but the right way to end the senatorial race between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken will be to flip a coin. 

There is only one "little" problem with Seife's analysis.  The Minnesota senate election isn't a tie. Coleman remains ahead. Of course this could end up as the excuse for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to declare the election there a "statistical tie" and settle it via a coin toss despite Coleman's consistent lead. Heads I win, tails you lose.

And isn't it interesting that we never heard of a "statistical tie" defined as an actual tie to be determined by a coin toss in the past whenever a Democrat narrowly led in a recount election?