Did you know that there was a major American election on Tuesday? Great. Let us all never speak of it again. At least for the next 3.5 years.
But before we send the parts of our brains that care about politics off to recuperate at a nice imaginary spa, take a quick look at a page of election maps put together by University of Michigan physics professor Mark Newman. He studies complex systems, including the networks of human relationships and decision-making that go into election results. His page of maps shows several different ways to visualize the same 2012 presidential election data — methods which provide different pieces of context that you don't normally see in the simple state-by-state map.
The basic map — the one you see on TV and in the newspaper — doesn't really tell you the whole story. It gives you no idea of population density (a factor that obviously matters a lot in tallying the popular vote), and it only shows the winning party in each state. In reality, the vote is seldom all-Democrat or all-Republican. There's a gradient, no matter where you live.
The map above takes both those factors into account — distorting the country to make the more populous parts larger, and showing split turnouts in shades of purple.
Thanks, Rick Musser!
(Video link) A local election in Cincinnato, Ohio came down to one vote from one person who thought it just wouldn't matter. But as it turns out, that person was the wife of Robert McDonald, who was running for a city council position -- and the race ended up tied. Katie McDonald just couldn't make it to the polls on Tuesday, and now the election will be decided with a coin toss.
Except for the coin toss, this was basically the premise for a 1956 episode of Popeye the Sailor, "Popeye For President," in which Miss Olive Oyl was too busy doing household chores to go cast her own tie-breaking vote for either Popeye (I-Spinach Party) or Bluto (I-Blutocratic Party). What's great about this vintage cartoon is not just the message about the importance of voting, but all the jokes that can be made about two "politicians" offering potential voters "stuff" and doing actual physical labor for the single woman vote.
(via My Vintage Generation)
It's time for some American Democracy 101. Every election cycle, it frustrates me to no end that most news outlets spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the latest polls without explaining the significance those polls actually have on the outcome of a presidential election that isn't truly decided by the voters. My Halloween wish this year was for someone to explain the electoral college to me, and Twin Cities journalist Frank Bures has obliged*.
This piece has actually been around since 2000, but I think it's a nice explanation of what the electoral college is, where it comes from, and why it's going to matter to you tonight.
The only votes that count in this election will be cast in mid-December by the 538 members of the electoral college. That's who you and I will vote for on November 7: electors for Bush or electors for Gore, and their votes are the currency of presidential politics. Each state gets as many electors as it has representatives and senators. In all but two states, the winning party takes all the state's electoral votes.
...At first, in several states, there was no popular presidential vote. For decades after 1787, in states like Delaware, New York, and Georgia, the legislatures chose the electors. In South Carolina, there was no popular vote for the chief executive until 1860. But today, party loyalty prevents electors from acting as the free agents envisioned by the founders. In 99% of the cases, the electoral vote is a formality.
...Electors tend to be either ordinary people—teachers, carpenters, middle managers, retirees, and lawyers' or party activists sent to the state capital for half an hour of raw power. Some, like Marc Abrams, a 1996 Oregon elector I talked to in the course of researching this article" are blasé about choosing the most powerful man on earth. They voted in a room in the Capitol basement. It took about twenty minutes, and hardly anyone noticed they were there. When I asked Abrams how it felt, he said, "It was sorta cool. "
*Of course, I also wished for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. And for a million dollars to be placed, in my name, in a Swiss bank account.
Voting expert tells The Awl: There are reasons to be concerned about voting machines, but vast conspiracies aren't one of them
Tagg Romney doesn't own Ohio's voting machines. And Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in D.C., says that a lot of the fears the public has about electronic voting are equally unfounded. The biggest thing to worry about, he tells The Awl's Maria Bustillos, is that we're so busy sending around email forwards about ostensible vast conspiracies that we're not paying enough attention to the very real security and tech problems that do exist in the voting system.
Maria Bustillos: I no longer know what to believe in media reports of electronic election tampering. What are professionals most worried about, at this point, in this election?
Joseph Lorenzo Hall: It's a very complex area and unfortunately one that lends itself to dearths of information and poor intuition… which is how Bello and Fitrakis get way out into left field. Extending email/fax voting to displaced NJ voters is making us very nervous… What I think we expect to see a lot of—and it's not as sexy as conspiracy theory—is the aging of this machinery, as much of it is 10- to 15-year-old computer equipment. Another not-so-sexy source of problems will be from newer online voter registration systems, an electronic version of pollbooks. We may see strange reports of people not being registered or being marked down as already voted. Much of that will seem to some like fraud, but it is more likely poorly checked voter registration rolls. People don't like having to cast provisional ballots, but they need to understand that if you're registered and at the right location, the ballot will count.
Maria: Why do you think we haven't been able to solve these problems, given that we've had years in which to do so?
Joe: Two reasons: 1) no one cares about it until presidential election years, and mostly right before that election; and, 2) there is no regular source of federal funding for elections (when it comes to a state or local government choosing between spending money to fill potholes—which affect people every day—or making elections better, they will fill the potholes).
The election is next week. And, with that in mind, Salon's Paul Campos has posted a helpful reminder explaining what the statistics at the fivethirtyeight blog actually mean (and what they don't).
In particular, you have to remember that, while Nate Silver gives President Obama a 77.4 percent chance of winning the presidential election, that's not the same thing as saying that Obama is going to win.
Suppose a weather forecasting model predicts that the chance of rain in Chicago tomorrow is 75 percent. How do we determine if the model produces accurate assessments of probabilities? After all, the weather in Chicago tomorrow, just like next week’s presidential election, is a “one-off event,” and after the event the probability that it rained will be either 100 percent or 0 percent. (Indeed, all events that feature any degree of uncertainty are one-off events – or to put it another way, if an event has no unique characteristics it also features no uncertainties).
The answer is, the model’s accuracy can be assessed retrospectively over a statistically significant range of cases, by noting how accurate its probabilistic estimates are. If, for example, this particular weather forecasting model predicted a 75 percent chance of rain on 100 separate days over the previous decade, and it rained on 75 of those days, then we can estimate the model’s accuracy in this regard as 100 percent. This does not mean the model was “wrong” on those days when it didn’t rain, any more than it will mean Silver’s model is “wrong” if Romney were to win next week.
What Silver is predicting, in effect, is that as of today an election between a candidate with Obama’s level of support in the polls and one with Mitt Romney’s level of support in those polls would result in a victory for the former candidate in slightly more than three out of every four such elections.
(Video link) Joss Whedon is familiar with catastrophic urban disaster and the supernatural, so it's about time he endorsed a candidate in this year's presidential race! Watch as he puts his money on Mitt Romney as the best man with the best ideas for leading our country directly into a "nightmare zombie wasteland." (via YouTube)
Mother Jones today published a second part of the video secretly recorded at a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton. The first bombshell will forever be known as "47 percent," but the portion getting attention today focuses on a response the Republican presidential candidate gave to a question about the Israel/Palestine peace process. The tl;dr there: he doesn't believe it'll happen, and intends to "kick the ball down the road" and let the next administration deal with it, or something like that.
But here's a derpworthy moment in the video that may be of interest to science fans, and people who have actually done some reporting on how so-called "dirty bombs" work.
Here's a transcript for the relevant portion of the video:
The Saturday Night Live primetime election specials will make a comeback -- whose momentum will it ruin this year?
NBC has announced that, as they did four years ago, Saturday Night Live would make an early return to the airwaves to tackle the presidential election. Two primetime specials were announced for September 20 and September 27 (both Thursdays), and while we know that Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg have left the show, will Jason Sudeikis delay his departure to play Mitt Romney? Or will Romney actually show up?
But more importantly: It was the SNL specials four years ago that shed a different kind of spotlight on then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by way of a devastating (and Emmy-winning) impression by accidental doppelgänger Tina Fey. Will the SNL writers and performers duplicate the skewering commentary from 2008 with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? And who is going to come out of this looking worse?
Read the rest