Stats for the News Media: The science of election results

Saw this today on Facebook and thought, “Yup.  That’s about right.”

From all the election coverage, it seems like the general public/media completely ignore the fact that election results are not exact.

Hanging chad, voting machine malfunction, or provisional ballot aside, the tabulation of the results themselves have a margin of error.  When they show polling data, they always show the margin of error.  However, when they report actual election results, they never show a margin of error.  Why is that?  The only time it is acknowledged is during recounts, when the numbers are never the same from count to recount.  Even still, it’s treated as though counting enough times will eventually yield the correct answer, when in reality, it’s just a measure of precision, not accuracy.  (To see what I mean about precision versus accuracy, see here.)

I’ve looked for data/info on the margin of error in ACTUAL voting outcomes, but can only find info on interpreting poll results- not actual votes.

I did, however, find this from a grad school prof of mine that has an example of a close election and the math behind it.   Conclusion:  it is possible to have a tie, and recounting is really just a coin toss to break the tie.

I think perhaps this is why the electoral college is helpful- it makes the results look clear cut in terms of Electoral College votes even if the popular vote was close.

But seriously- why ignore the margin of error for ACTUAL election results?

1 Comment

Filed under Scientist

One response to “Stats for the News Media: The science of election results

  1. Hello! I had a question for you about possibly collaborating on something and was hoping you could email me back to discuss? Thanks so much!

    – Carolyn

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