Election officials might not want to hear this, but the way we vote isn’t scientific. If they were conducted using the scientific method, recounts would be expected, maybe even mandatory. People would want to re-examine the raw data — as former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has been pushing to do in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Why? There’s no reason to assume elections are any more immune to errors than scientific studies, where replication is often a requirement for acceptance. And that means not just rechecking final results but either running an experiment again or re-evaluating the raw data — akin to the hand recounts that Stein, as well as a number of computer scientists, have advocated for. Stein succeeded in Michigan, where a hand recount is expected to begin Friday, and lodged a partial victory in Wisconsin, where both hand and machine recounts started Thursday. This isn’t just an exercise in sore losing. Vote counts, after all, aren’t any more sacred than any other kind of measurement. It’s a key tenet of science that measurements, from weight to temperature to cholesterol counts, are imperfect reflections of reality. Scientists acknowledge this uncertainty with error bars — if the error bars overlap, they can’t definitively declare one value bigger than the other.
Donald Trump won Michigan by a 0.28 percent margin, or about 13,000 votes. Could that be within that margin of error? Could a hand recount flip the result? Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist who studies voting technology, says it’s unlikely but not impossible.
A recount would let observers zero in on anomalies. In Michigan, for example, 84,000 people voted in state and local races, but apparently left the space for president blank. Typically the opposite happens, with voters leaving more blanks further down the ballot. Those people might have skipped the presidential candidates in protest, but Mercuri wonders why this wasn’t reflected in exit polls. If something was askew in the ballot-reading machines so they were looking for marks a fraction of an inch off the right spot, it could account for such a discrepancy.
Unfortunately, that kind of technical glitch would only be picked up in a hand recount — the kind where a human eyes every ballot — and not a machine recount. Electronic errors or deliberate hacks can go undetected by machines, Mercuri says, noting they can miss problems with scanners and vote-tabulation software. “As the saying goes with computers — garbage in, garbage out,” she says. That could be a problem in Wisconsin, with its mix of hand and machine recounts.