To Prevent Election Catastrophe We Need Open Data

In 2004, many Democrats thought George W. Bush won reelection by vote fraud. How could he have done so much better than the exit polls predicted? Eventually both the nonpartisan Election Science Institute and the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute presented good statistical arguments that Bush’s share of the vote was consistent with his exit poll numbers. These analyses didn’t stop diehards from believing the election had been stolen, but they convinced many doubters.

This November, on the morning after Election Day, Americans could awaken to find that both Trump and Biden are claiming to be the legitimate president-elect. Democrats and Republicans may allege that election results in some states have been tainted by fraud. Partisan distrust and hatred in America are much more intense than they were in 2004. If the country hasn’t already slid into civil war by November 3, charges of a stolen presidential election may help push it over the edge.

Passions are running so high that it will be hard to convince supporters of the loser to accept the result. Still, we should do everything we can to increase popular confidence in the vote. We should make every attempt to prevent even the appearance of voter suppression or voter fraud. Since accusations of fraud seem almost inevitable, we should try to establish in advance a set of standards for determining whether or not it has occurred.

Just as in 2004, statistical analysis will help us to detect tampering at the ballot box. 

Voter fraud can reveal itself in vote totals that differ markedly from the numbers that would be expected to emerge from a fair election. Statisticians can compare exit polls with recorded votes in each state and see if there are red flags. They can analyze precinct-level totals to look for “thumbprints” of voter fraud. It’s not as sure as a photograph of “mislaid” ballots dumped behind a post office, but it’s a very useful tool.

It’s not perfect, however. What if exit polling organizations don’t share their data? Even more seriously, what if partisan statisticians try out different statistical models until they come up with an analysis that “proves” or “disproves” voter fraud? If statisticians don’t say in advance what sorts of models they plan to use, they can cherry pick a method to prove whatever they like.

This sort of agenda-driven approach to statistics has plagued scientific research in recent years. It would make any post-election attempt to check on voter fraud unreliable too. America is seething with partisan rancor at the moment, and should that rancor explode, it could be catastrophic for the republic.

Statisticians and polling organizations should act before the election to outline the procedures they will use to assess whether voter fraud has taken place. Here’s what they need to do:

  • Set up born-open data collection that will allow everyone to see the raw data from exit polls.
  • Register polling organizations’ voting models in advance, so that everyone can understand why and how each exit poll differs from the final results.
  • Commit to presenting the results of all statistical models used to analyze election data, to eliminate the possibility of cherry-picking.
  • Draft and publicize a clear set of standard “best practices” criteria for post-election analysis.
  • These actions may require polling organizations to show outsiders their proprietary data and models. Perhaps access to the relevant data and models should be limited to a bipartisan group of statisticians who will sign legal agreements not to disclose the details of proprietary data and models. But Americans’ trust in “bipartisan experts” has never been lower. Given this fact, perhaps polling organizations should sacrifice their proprietary rights and make their data and methods public in the interest of the survival of the republic.

Open data and predefined statistical methods won’t be enough by themselves to save America from the toxic brew of partisan hatred. But they might make the difference that allows the country to accept the results of the November election in peace.

Let’s put a transparent system into place while we still have time.


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About David Randall

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

Photo: Christoph Burgstedt/Science Photo Library/Getty Images