US election – last post, promise

There’s been a lot of discussion of fraud in the recent US election.

My gut feeling is that there’s not a lot in it. Most cases of election fraud I have dealt with have been large scale, of the order of shifting 10-15% of the vote at least. If you are a corrupt election official, there is very little point in shifting the vote by only a percentage point or two, because the risk is quite strong that it will not deliver the required result. If you have a close race then it is even more risky, because a vengeful winner will take it out on those who tried to cheat him or her out of victory. A couple of interesting examples:

* the Serbian elections where Milosevic lost power in 2000 – votes were in fact counted honestly at the local level, but the central election commission then deliberately added them up wrong to give him an extra 10% from his opponents’ votes. Eventually rectified, as you may remember, when demonstrators stormed the parliament building and forced the supreme court to rule that he had lost.

* recent elections in a little-known bandit statelet on my patch. Similar tactic attempted, though the numbers were a bit more outrageous (government candidate’s vote vastly inflated, opposition candidate vastly deflated); again demonstrators of each side have stormed the various soi-disant decision-making bodies and there’s a bit of a stand-off at the moment. Nobody in the west has noticed though. (Neither candidate will be recognised anyway even after they’ve decided who won.)

On the other hand, compare:

* elections of recent years in Montenegro, which has its problems, nonetheless have been rated fair on the mechanics at least by international observers. As one observer explained to me, because the outcome is uncertain, (and usually the margin of victory narrow) the election administrators have every incentive to run them fairly because they genuinely don’t know what the result will be.

In some cases vote fraud is endemic and entire villages vote the way they are told to by the elders. On the other hand, the elders may well have an interesting habit of changing their mind from election to election about who to vote for, and I suspect that there is some internal discussion in each village before the elders make their decision.

So, in summary, the small scale of the alleged possible fraud in the US to me indicates politically that it probably didn’t happen. The fact is that the result matched the opinion polls (and even the exit polls) within the margin of error. Plus I saw somewhere (but foolishly didn’t note its address) a back-of-the-envelope analysis showing that the states with the biggest discrepancies between the opinion polls and the results are not necessarily those with voting machines.

The other strike against the theory is that it does seem to me that there’s a strong tradition of backbiting in American government; I find it pretty easy to get officials to brief me off the record about the failings of US policy, and we’ve seen public dissent at the highest level in almost every administration – even this one – think Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke. These people keep records, and at a certain point it will eventually suit their personal agenda to go public with them and stab their former colleague in the back.

To run an effective vote-stealing campaign requires the knowledge of hundreds of people. (OK, if you’re doing it by machine, probably a few dozen rather than hundreds, but the number is still large.) Given the stakes, at least one of those people would have come forward by now because they weren’t paid enough, or were snubbed by their immediate superior in the chain of command, or split up with their lover, or even got religion. (In the cases I mentioned earlier, everybody in the entire country knew what was going on.) Argument from silence is always a bit risky but I think it reinforces my initial gut reaction.

The one egregious 4000 vote error in Franklin County Ohio was reversed, though of course the systematic biases in the system against poor and less well educated voters remain. Plus of course the disfranchisement of former felons which is a major human rights infringement. But a conscious plan to rig it for the Republicans – I think not. Too few votes stolen, and too many people would have known.

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