No Chads and “Good” Elections

My first experience with punch card ballots came at the beginning of my election career as the election warehouse manager. One of my first projects was cleaning pounds of chad from the votomatic voting machines. Chad are the tiny, multi-colored rectangles of paper released from the punchcard when a vote is cast. In other words, chad are the result of punching a pre-scored punchcard- every free-ranging chad represents a vote cast.

My next encounter with free-ranging chad was when counting ballots on the electro-mechanical card readers. As cards were sucked into the noisy machines, scanned, and then fed into the outstack hopper, I saw chad shooting into the air, falling to the ground and lodging themselves into the crevices of the card reader. Fortunately most of the chad stayed intact on the punchcard but it was unsettling to see the errant chad all around. Were the loose chad the result of a voter making a choice? Did the machine accidently dislodge them? Were the voters selections accurately read by the card reader? When I asked, the answer was “We don’t know. And we can’t know.” This was my first realization that the outcomes of an election could be ambiguous. Ambiguity is being defined as “a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way and it is not clear which meaning is intended.” (Encarta)

Over the years, like most election officials, I learned to accept the ambiguity. As long I used punch cards, what choice did I have? For better or worse, over-worked and resource starved election officials often feel compelled to accept limitations and weaknesses in their equipment, processes and statutes – and ambiguity from many other sources.Chad Eyeball Then came the 2000 Presidential election and the Florida pregnant, hanging chad and butterfly ballots. Now the secret was out publically. Punchcard ballots could and did lead to ambiguous election results.

From that point on, I began to see ambiguity in an election, ambiguity from any source, as antithetical to a “good” election. In my last post, I promised to offer a definition of a “good” election. This is it: A “good” election is an election without ambiguity.

When anything occurs during an election which leads to a credible alternative narrative about the outcome of the election (that cannot be proved or disproved) the election cannot be considered to be a “good” election. Conversely, an election rife with errors and mistakes but whose outcome is unambiguous and not in doubt is must be considered a “good” election. As if to put an exclamation point on my argument, I came across this headline on electionline.org this morning: “… election officials call liquor referendum results ‘incurably uncertain'”.

As I write this, I hear, in my mind, my administrator colleagues muttering incredulity and I hear my academic friends asking “how does one operationalize ambiguity and what are the variables?” I can’t just throw out the proposition that an election’s “goodness” is measured by the absence of ambiguity and expect it to be accepted as truth without skepticism and challenge. In the next posts, I hope to make a pragmatic yet theoretical and scientific argument in support of this proposition. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and input.

Stay tuned.

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