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What a day for presidential elections

In 2000, George Bush became the only 20th century president to lose the popular vote but sit in the White House. The cause? Technology.

On 07 November 2000, voters went to bed with a presidential contest “too close to call” and awakened with one forever tainted by a razor thin margin in Florida.

That race, between former Vice President Al Gore (D) and George W. Bush (R), former Texas governor and son of former president George H.W. Bush, would not be decided for another three weeks.

On 12 December 2000, U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) “declared that time had run out to devise a remedy” in Florida for the razor thin difference in votes. Bush won by about 500 votes out of 5,825,043 votes cast. That is a margin of 0.0086%, a number that is, for all intents and purposes, zero.

The official tally:

  • Bush won the Electoral College vote, 271 to 266
  • Gore won the popular vote, 50,999,897 to 50,456,002

Bush was the only president in the 20th century to win the presidency with fewer popular votes than his opponent. Donald J. Trump would replicate that win/loss pattern in 2016. Although two Republicans and one Democrat sat in the White House during the first 20 years of this century, the Democrat had won the popular vote in each election.

On 07 November 1944, 56 years earlier, voters had elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to his fourth term as president of the United States. The vote was decisive: 432 to 99 for the Electoral College or 53.4% to 45.9% in popular vote.

FDR was the only US president to serve more than two full terms of office.

Voting technogies

The results of the 2020 election in Florida rested on a past-its-prime voting technology, the butterfly ballot. 

Butterfly ballot, Florida, 2000
The infamous Florida butterfly ballot from the 2000 election. Smithsonian.

In 1964, voters in Fulton and DeKalb Counties, Georgia, were the first to use a punch card ballot in the presidential primary.

With the introduction of punch cards, we exchanged the possible human error associated with counting ballots by hand with the (unseen but widely documented) human error associated with punching those holes.

From CNN:

The so-called “Votomatic” system developed in the 1960s is based on technology that has been considered obsolete for years. Now, the outcome of the November 7 presidential race hangs on whether as few as two Florida counties are allowed to conduct manual recounts of punch-card ballots to include those wrongly discarded due to “hanging” chad.

In 1988, the National Bureau of Standards recommended retiring this voting technology: “It is generally not possible to exactly duplicate a count obtained on pre-scored punch cards.”

In addition to documented challenges with counting the punch cards, there’s an issue of ballot design.

We are used to reading from left to right so the punch card ballot typically puts candidates’ names on the left side and the holes on the right. To use fewer instruction cards some administrators display names on both sides of the exposed holes. This so-called butterfly ballot is confusing and contributed to about 16,000 unreadable ballots out of 300,000 in 1996 in Florida’s West Palm Beach. This problem was not flagged, and was repeated with the infamous butterfly ballot of 2000, which disenfranchised some 19,000 (emphasis added).

Paul Nolte, the president of the Election Resources Corporation which manufactured the voting technology, defended it to CNN. He employed the classic Dilbert-like response: blame the user for bad design:

“I don’t think there are any problems with the punch-card voting system,” Nolte said. “I think that no matter what voting system you’re using, there is a certain responsibility, that’s the voter’s responsibility, to cast a ballot according to the way that they were instructed to cast the ballot.”

In Better Design, Better Electionsthe Brennon Center responded directly to that claim:

Some have dismissed the importance of usability in elections, arguing that voters only have themselves to blame if they fail to navigate design flaws. This misunderstands the purpose of elections. They are not a test of voters’ ability to follow confusing designs or complicated instructions; they are, instead, a mechanism by which voters express their preference for candidates and policies. No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices (emphasis added).

Moreover, Florida had no statewide uniform method of counting ballots. Neither did it have an automatic process for recounts. So the SCOTUS stopped the recount.

It was the election that would not be buried. In 2001, researchers from four universities determined that more than 2,000 Democratic voters had “mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan, a third-party far right candidate, because of the confusing design.” That’s almost four times the lead Bush held when the Supreme Court forced counting to stop.

1944 presidential election results by county
Results of the 1944 US presidential election by county. Shades of blue are for Roosevelt (D), shades of red are for Dewey (R), and shades of green are for “No Candidate” (Texas Regulars). Wikipedia.
2000 presidential election results by county
Results of the 2000 US presidential election by county. Shades of blue are for Gore (D) and shades of red are for Bush (R). Wikipedia.

#scitech, #society, #computing
📷 Flickr/Brian Kusler
Daily posts, 2022-2023 (291/365)

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