The November 2017 Virginia House of Delegates election between Democrat Shelly Simonds and Republican David Yancey famously ended in a tie after a disputed recount. The race was especially critical because the party in control of the legislature was dependent on this one election.  But what does the basic probability of random error tell us about the outcome of the election? My contention is that we will never know who really won this election (and I wrote this before the final lot draw – neither binary outcome is good).
How accurate is the counting in an electoral race? What if, say, your counting methods were 99.99% accurate? That sounds pretty good. But with just in excess of 23,000 votes cast in this particular election, a 99.99% accuracy would mean that you were able to count the race accurately within about two votes. However, the recount itself reversed a 10-point win by Mr. Yancey, so we know that the actual accuracy of the count was at least five times worse than this. 
A test conducted by Rice University in 2012 concluded that hand recounts could have an inaccuracy rate of between 0.5% and 2% depending on the method used.  One-half of one percent in this case could mean an inaccuracy range of 115 votes! In other words, one of the candidates could lose the actual election by over one hundred votes and still be declared the winner.
And this does not account for a U.S. history with well-documented issues over the years with denied voting rights, error-prone voting practices, and one-side-favorable gerrymandering of political districts. At the presidential level of U. S. elections, the Electoral College, with its messy origin and patched history, presents a host of statistical anomalies (a good future topic). Viable third party votes act directly opposite to their usual intention in Electoral College math, and the ballots of tens of millions of voters of either of the two main political stripes (say, Democrats in Texas or Republicans in New York) will never affect the outcome of the race.
Clearly, humans do not like to face this level of uncertainty, so we prefer to pretend it does not exist. We want a winner and we will declare one through some means, in this case a court-sanctioned recount and the ancient technique of the drawing of lots. The problem comes with what we do next.
What happens as a result of this particular race in Virginia remains to be seen, but the behavior of state and national elections in the U.S. in the recent past suggests that a form of “scorched-earth” politics is often the next order of business, where the arbitrarily-designated winning side proceeds to rush to complete as many governmental actions as possible in direct opposition to, and even direct spiting of, the other side.
With this reality of a very mixed electorate in many elections in recent years, this would suggest to me that “good people who disagree” from each side should be thrown into a room to not come out until the best, most open-armed decisions, protecting the most vulnerable parts of the population and the widest of perspectives, are proposed.
Instead, the meanest, nastiest men step forward (yes, usually men) bearing political knives and hungry for blood. All while saying perhaps the most inane of election victory phrases: “The American people have spoken!”
In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 4.8 million votes were cast in my native state of Michigan.  The winning margin was less than half the best-case scenario found in the Rice study, and that does not take into account Russians or the FBI or Iowa Congressman Steve King’s imagined immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes.” 
Perhaps our denial of the effects of randomness on elections is akin to our obsession with the outcome of a sports contest. The complex physics, probabilities and inherent randomness of a basketball bouncing on a rim in the final seconds of a tied basketball game turns into joyous shouts, claims of mastery and financial wealth from one side, with ignominious shame and defeat for the other.
To mix sports metaphors, we would prefer to spike the football in the end zone and do a victory dance, even with multiple flags thrown on the play, because we don’t like math.
We can fight back against this corruption of democracy in big ways or small ways. The first small one, I suggest, is to plaster a big “Stupid” sign over any politician who ever utters the words, “The American people have spoken.”
And so, the future of the world, or at least Virginia (for good or bad depending on your politics), was decided by the ancient gambling/probability practice of the drawing of lots, from which we get the word “lottery.”  So where do you come down on why the the winner was the winner?
Was it the luck of the draw? Was it the hand of God? Was it fate? Was it scientific determinism? Was it probabilistic randomness? All of these topics are in the queue, so follow me on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the icons at the top of the page, or bookmark godplaysdice.com in your browser.
- Morrison, Jim, et al. “Virginia Court Tosses One-Vote Victory That Briefly Ended GOP Majority in House.” The Washington Post, 21 Dec. 2017.
- Note that if you take away any issue of invalid or uncounted ballots, you only need a swing of five votes in this case from one candidate to the other to create a tie.
- Rice University. “Hand counts of votes may cause errors.” ScienceDaily, 2 February 2012.
- Julie Mack. “Michigan’s 2016 Presidential Election by the Numbers.” MLive.com, 10 Nov. 2016.
- LoGiurato, Brett. “One Tea Party Congressman Is Becoming Republicans’ Worst Nightmare On Immigration Reform.” Business Insider, 25 July 2013.
- Republican David Yancey drew the winning lot on January 4, 2017, tipping control of the Virginia House of Delegates to his party.