Randomness and Fairness in Electoral Process

During this election cycle, the public has become more attuned to process than we usually are.  With massive numbers of votes expected to be cast by mail, many Americans are concerned about the opportunity that creates for cheating.

Central to the debate is the gap between fraud that can be proven to have happened and the possibility of fraud created by the process.  The latter is important because, for our system to work, it must seem fair.  The whole point of representative democracy is to get people who might otherwise devolve into warring tribes to come to the table and agree to settle disagreements through a rational approach to choosing leadership and direction.

This breaks down when the amount of power at stake becomes so overwhelming that (as we’ve seen in Venezuela and other socialist dictatorships) winning once means victory is permanent, but that is a subject for another essay.  For now, the key point is that things not only have to be fair, they have to seem fair.

In a small, probably inconsequential, way the order of candidates on Tiverton’s ballot for Town Council provides a test case to consider.  As I wrote on Tiverton Fact Check:

You might notice something peculiar about this list: Most of the TTA candidates are at the bottom.  With seven candidates to be elected, only one of the seven bolded names is in the top 7 on the ballot.

If a quick refresher of secondary-school math was sufficient for this calculation, there is only a 0.7% chance that just one out of seven TTA candidates would make the top seven on a list of 16 people and be the last of that top group. In 2018, three of our seven endorsed candidates were in the top seven, and all of them were pretty evenly spread across the 18 candidates.

In Tiverton, the Board of Canvassers has proven itself to be unworthy of trust, and the process for selecting candidates (fully visible on the recorded Zoom meeting) leaves a lot to be desired.  Town Clerk Nancy Mello placed flat, unfolded cards in a box in some indiscernible order, gave it a few mild shakes, and then another clerk pulled out names.

Not surprisingly, the names that went into the box toward the end were more likely to be pulled out toward the beginning of the draw.

This outcome is hardly decisive for the election and may, in the end, be completely a matter of chance.  Still, the insiders of Tiverton politics, including the Board of Canvassers, have proven themselves perfectly willing to put their thumbs on the scale, and decades of experience with that reality are taking their toll.

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