Joe Soucheray needs my help and cries out for my assistance in an opinion piece published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
What we need is a margin of victory that is mathematically bulletproof, not one-half of 1 percent. I don't know what that margin is, but a mathematician could come up with it based on vote totals.As a civic-minded mathematician, I hasten to answer his call. Joe probably won't appreciate it, though, since my response boils down to little more than, “Wow, Joe, you sure are a dumb-ass, aren't you?” Under those circumstances, it's easy to see how he might think I'm not being very helpful.
I just said “he might think.” Now that, you see, would have made a difference. Soucheray believes that the hassle in the Minnesota senate race could have been resolved by setting a new standard for victory.
Nonsense. And you don't have to be a mathematical genius like me to realize that. You just need to give it a tiny bit of thought. Soucheray didn't:
Out of 2.9 million votes cast, there would have to be a margin of victory that could not be automatically challenged as questionable. One vote below that number would call for the coin flip—yes, a coin flip.Now that is just dumb-squared. Not the bit about the coin flip. That's a perfectly respectable way to break a tie. It's Joe's comment about “one vote below.” Freaking hilarious. Can you imagine the hassles and lawsuits every time the results teeter on the boundary of Soucheray's new margin-of-victory standard? It doesn't matter how many wise mathematicians and statisticians choose the new standard. Any time you put a dot on a number line, the question arises whether you're on one side or the other. It makes no difference whether the standard is “more votes than the guy in second place” or “a margin of at least one percentage point,” the tally will be disputed and adjudicated every time it's close.
You can't fix this problem any better than Minnesota already did. A bipartisan panel looked at each disputed ballot that made it through the process (some, of course, were disqualified at earlier stages and a batch of those are under litigation) and voted, usually unanimously, to allocate the vote to Franken, Coleman, or neither. The whole thing played out on live video, complete with images of each questioned ballot. You can't improve on that a great deal.
It doesn't matter whether you're trying to determine who won a simple plurality (as in the current Minnesota contretemps) or if some arbitrary margin of victory was achieved. In the end it comes down to counting individual ballots and trying to figure out what side of the line you're on.
Even the proposal for a run-off election suffers from the same potential problem. Saxby Chambliss thought on election night that he had avoided a run-off in the Georgia senate race. He later found out that he had not quite won an outright majority and had to face the Democratic nominee in a second round of balloting before he secured re-election. If the margin in the first round of voting had been within one or two votes, you can be sure that Sen. Chambliss would have been in court seeking to declare himself the majority-vote victor who did not need to risk a second ballot.
The notion that some new definition of victory will solve all of our problems is a delusion on the part of Joe the Columnist. It is, frankly, quite illogical.