What is the ‘true’ result of an election?

With what’s going on in Iran right now, many commentators are wondering whether the elections were fair. That is to say, do the reported results correspond to reality, to how people actually voted?

“In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, said the United States is “deeply troubled” by the unrest in Iran and is concerned about allegations of ballot fraud. But he stopped short of condemning the Iran security forces for cracking down on demonstrators and said Washington does not know whether the allegations of fraud are, in fact, true.” (fromTop Cleric Calls for Inquiry as Protesters Defy Ban in Iran“)

I don’t know of course, but I want to make a case that the notion of ‘the true result’ is a difficult one, in an of itself. This of course has applicability here as well, where we have elections being questioned in various parts of country. Presumably we would like to know who ‘really’ won in Minnesota and so on.

Here’s a thought experiment.

Let’s assume that you can, with 100% confidence, collect all and only the cast ballots from an election in one place. Let’s say there are a hundred boxes sitting on a pallet, with security guards and live web cams.

Ask yourself, is there an objective, theoretically correct tabulation of these ballots? Is there a ‘right answer’? And so the job of the election process is to come up with a set of procedures and devices to determine that right answer?

Oddly, I say that the answer is “no”. There’s no ‘right answer’. There’s always subjectivity involved. Why? Well let’s take some examples, from here in the US, but I say similar examples exist no matter how ballots are designed and votes are counted.

For example, in most states there is a requirement that a paper ballot be filled in by fully filling in the circles in front of the candidates that you choose, and that there are no other marks on the ballot. In fact the rule is that any stray marks on the ballot make it invalid and not counted.

In practice it happens often that a voter marks a circle part way, then crosses that out and clearly marks another candidate. Or that a voter, instead of filling the circle in front of their candidate, instead draws a big circle around the candidate’s name. Or that they fill in a write-in candidate, but neglect to fill in the circle in front of the name. In each of these cases, they have ‘technically’ and ‘legally’ made their ballot invalid. Theoretically these ballots should not be counted.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: in fact the purpose or goal of the law is to capture ‘voter intent‘ – what did the voter mean? Even if they did not follow the instructions precisely, is it clear who they wanted to vote for?

This is but one of many ways in which, even if the law is clear, the adjudication of the ballot is subject to interpretation. There is no specific objective, theoretically correct tabulation of that ballot. Wow.

So when the vote is close, the losing candidate has a chance to argue about each voter’s intent based on what they scribbled on the ballot. That’s why recounts can go on and on and end up in the Supreme Court.
And that’s why the question of what the ‘true’ count is of an election in the final analysis doesn’t have a real objective answer. (Even you can guarantee (which you can’t) that you have all and only the legally voted ballots in a particular election, another ‘fact’ that actually doesn’t have an objective meaning.)

[disclaimer: I am not an elections expert, this is what I have come to understand from fairly extensive, but still non-expert, study of how elections work.]

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