A CONTROVERSIAL ELECTION AND THE NATURE OF MEASUREMENT

Workers in the richly quantitative oil and gas business must have chuckled at some of the numerical presumptions expressed during the post-election controversy settled Dec. 13 in favor of Texas Gov.-now President-Elect-George W. Bush.

Workers in the richly quantitative oil and gas business must have chuckled at some of the numerical presumptions expressed during the post-election controversy settled Dec. 13 in favor of Texas Gov.-now President-Elect-George W. Bush.

Quaint views of measurement were on display.

On election day, Nov. 7, and in the wee hours of Nov. 8, television stations first projected a win in Florida for Vice-Pres. Al Gore, then recanted. Later they called the national election for Bush, then recanted.

By sun-up Nov. 8, there was general agreement that the race had been too close to call. And it became clear that as Florida's voting went, so would go the election.

But Bush's margins of apparent victory in the initial Florida vote and early recounts were very thin. Inevitably, the Gore side hunted questionable ballots and, of course, found many. So the election trailed into an unsatisfying run of legal contests, finally settled by the US Supreme Court, over which ballots to count and how to count them.

The lingering problem in all this is not that the judicial system had to become involved. And it is not that the state and federal legislatures stood ready to settle the matter.

The lingering problem is that the measuring device-the system for collecting and counting votes-isn't precise enough to distinguish between the winner and loser in a race as close as the one between Bush and Gore. In Florida, the device's margin of error was greater the margin of victory, whatever it was.

This is no indictment of Florida's statutorily prescribed, machine-based, voting system. All measuring devices have margins of error. All voting systems have margins of error.

In most elections, margins of victory easily exceed margins of error inherent in balloting systems, so the errors don't matter. This time they did.

Framers of the US Constitution, geniuses that they were, recognized this possibility in presidential elections. They charted a general course through state and federal legislatures for decisions on elections that the Electoral College couldn't settle. They accepted and accounted for the margin of error inherent in that and any system of measurement.

They probably would have found entertaining the intuition that emerged in Florida that hand-counting of ballots designed for machines would reveal the "real" vote total.

It could never be so, of course. People don't count as well as machines do. They lose track of numbers and make mistakes, and their tendency to err grows with both the magnitude of the chore and the number of counters. For another thing, Florida ballot-counters were supposed to interpret voter intent from cards completed with such imperfection that machines couldn't make sense of them. Furthermore, hand-counting meant handling ballots, which inevitably introduced change.

Hand-counting thus could not improve the margin of error inherent in Florida's election system and probably widened it. And, of course, it turned out to lack legal standing, at least in the manner in which it was being conducted.

It is not a national tragedy that arithmetic gave way to law in the Gore-Bush election. Arithmetic just wasn't conclusive to the satisfaction of both sides. It happens. And it could have happened in any other state. Laws and constitutions exist for just such circumstances. They worked admirably here.

An interesting paradox remains. There will be an effort to make elections more precise. And it will be justified. Some errors result from avoidable irregularities, some from outright fraud. Those are worthy targets.

So are old or malfunctioning voting machines. When voters read instructions and perform proper manipulations, their votes should count.

Beyond those improvements, significantly greater precision probably can come only by switching from machines to computers.

The paradox is that for people who think that hand-counting is the most precise way to measure millions of votes, computers would be fatally suspect. The Florida experience suggests there are many of them.

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