MN-Sen: Flip A Coin?

Charles Seife writes in today's NYTimes:

Minnesota’s instruments for counting votes are simply too crude to determine the winner in a race this tight. . . . Luckily, Minnesota’s electoral law has a provision for ties. After all the counting and recounting, if the vote is statistically tied, the state should invoke the section of the law that requires the victor to be chosen by lot. It’s hard to swallow, but the right way to end the senatorial race between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken will be to flip a coin.

This seems right to me.

Speaking for me only

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    Wonder (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by talesoftwokitties on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 09:07:47 AM EST
    what determines a "statistical tie"?  One vote, 10, 100?

    Enough (none / 0) (#5)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 09:44:50 AM EST

    Enough so if the loser of the actual certified count is Al, then there is a coin flip.  

    How about... (5.00 / 1) (#31)
    by lentinel on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:35:22 AM EST
    Which one of them can hold their breath longer?

    of course you'd support a coin flip to decide the winner.

    They counted the ballots. They recounted the ballots.

    Whoever wins the recount wins.

    This isn't kindergarten.

    Ballots in question (5.00 / 1) (#63)
    by Lora on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 04:50:30 PM EST
    There should absolutely not be a coin toss unless there is an actual tie, determined as precisely as possible.  I disagree that a hand-count of all unchallenged ballots is doomed to inaccuracy.

    The GOP has been pulling stunts like challenging ballots that showed a vote for McCain but no vote, or a vote for Franken in the Senate race.  They maintain that a vote for McCain means that the intent was a vote for Coleman.  Excuse me?

    Problems stem from not being able to track all the ballots that were printed, and from the challenged ballots.

    Electronic voting machines have also been known to lose votes, flip votes, generate votes out of thin air, break down, use uncertified software, be easily hackable, and be generally error-prone.  There is no way to verify that any single vote cast or counted on an electronic machine was recorded as per the voter's intent.  They are not the answer.

    For an accurate and verifiable election, we need an impeccable chain of custody of all ballots printed, full transparency of the election and counting process, secret ballot absolutely maintained, and have citizen oversight at every step using paper ballots that are hand-counted.

    No system is completely idiot-proof.  Whether you use paper or electronic equipment, you will have human error.  At least with paper, you have a record, and with hand-counting, you can always go back and double- (or triple-) check.

    Agree. (none / 0) (#64)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 04:55:48 PM EST
    It's a flawed process, but it is the one the candidates signed up for.

    It's flawed for the winner as well as the loser.

    Do the recount, and unless there is an actual tie, move on.


    Ugh (4.50 / 2) (#4)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 09:38:51 AM EST
    A coin flip for a "statistical tie"?  That would have virtually no legitimacy.  I'd be interested to see what the statute really says.

    The statute (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:01:51 AM EST
    Minn. Stat. sec. 204C.34:

    In case of a tie vote for nomination or election to an office, the canvassing board with the responsibility for declaring the results for that office shall determine the tie by lot.

    Pretty straightforward and standard.  I see nothing about a "statistical tie" and I would be surprised if the concept is legally recognized in any sense.

    If the final result is within a handful of votes, there's certainly a good chance that the certified winner will not, in fact, be the person who actually received the most votes.  But if you flip a coin, the chance that the "wrong" person will win the election is fixed at 50%.  So why that would be a preferable solution is beyond me.


    The person who's ahead by one vote (none / 0) (#8)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:05:13 AM EST
    will probably get certified.

    Yes (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:40:04 AM EST
    and the chance that the person who is ahead by one vote is actually the "real winner" will be greater than 50%, albeit not much greater.  A coin flip might be nearly as good as certifying the person who is ahead by a tiny margin, but under no circumstances could a coin flip be MORE likely to result in certification of the "real winner."

    Too many people misunderstand the concepts of margin of error and "statistical ties" such that they believe, for example, that if a poll has a margin of error of 5 points then a person who is ahead by 3 points might as well be tied.  That's just not what it means.


    Indeed (none / 0) (#14)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:42:28 AM EST
    Frankly, I think this kind of situation makes people who insist on paper ballots look kind of silly. It's hard to lose an electronic record, but not so hard to lose paper ballots.

    Actually not (none / 0) (#15)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:55:04 AM EST

    The paper recount uncovered double counting of some ballots in the electronic record.  

    Of course there's error (none / 0) (#18)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:06:15 AM EST
    when you count paper ballots. The point is that, generally speaking, you should not have paper ballots to count. It should be recorded electronically to begin with. I know that offends the voting reform fundamentalists, but I don't care.


    Absentee ballots will be paper for many years to come, as will many small jurisdictions.  Having the paper ballots to count is the only way to catch data entry errors.  

    Paper ballots create errors (none / 0) (#44)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:59:21 PM EST
    though it is true that absentee ballots are unavoidable.

    uh-huh (none / 0) (#22)
    by Dadler on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:12:31 AM EST
    so a blip that can be deleted or altered is somehow superior?  laughable.

    here's the simple fix -- YOU keep a copy of your paper ballot for the record, as well as the government keeping one.  AND maybe you keep an electronic record of your ballot as well.

    really simple.  why do you keep a copy of taxes?  why not just trust the government to get it right every time and pay whatever they say?  is voting not just as important?


    That's a terrible idea (none / 0) (#23)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:16:32 AM EST
    and it shows that you and people like you have no idea why we abandoned paper ballots in the first place.

    At the end of the day (none / 0) (#7)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:02:09 AM EST
    the U.S. Senate makes the call on that.

    Sure (none / 0) (#16)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:57:02 AM EST
    The point is different for me - that coin flip would in fact be just as fair as the count.

    This was a tie race and there is no real way of knowing who got the most actual votes - even though a number will be presented.


    Did you feel the same way about FL 2000? (none / 0) (#19)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:06:56 AM EST
    The number aren't that different.

    No (5.00 / 3) (#24)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:17:15 AM EST
    Gore actually won Florida by tens of thousands of votes.

    He lost 19,000 overvotes in Jacksonville, there were the 3,300 Buchanan votes in Palm Beach County and there were persistent chad problems that cost him thousands of votes.

    On top of that, gore won the national popular vote.

    On top of THAT, Gore did not get his coin flip.


    Republicans use the argument (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by BernieO on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:32:19 AM EST
    that the recount that Gore requested would not have given him the election, conveniently overlooking the fact that a statewide manual recount of both overvotes and and undervotes would have. So much for the will of the people.

    As for Gore winning the popular vote nationwide, that does not matter given our electoral college system. I would be fine with this system if delegates were awarded according to the proportion of votes each candidate gets in a state instead of winner-take-all. This is the way the Democratic Party runs the primaries. Not that the Dems are so principled. Their caucus system is hardly democratic given the weird weighting given each state, the difficulty many people have in attending a caucus and the lack of a private ballot.


    California Dem. primary (none / 0) (#37)
    by oculus on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:33:16 PM EST
    is winner-take-all.  Remember:  Mark Penn forgot this.

    Blooper. CA dem. primary (none / 0) (#38)
    by oculus on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:41:15 PM EST
    is not winner-take-all.  CA GOP primary:  winner- take-all.  

    This is why Hillary didn't ask me to manage her campaign.


    Exact same mistake Penn made. (none / 0) (#68)
    by Don in Seattle on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 07:32:11 PM EST
    Only difference is, you weren't paid million$ for making it.

    Ok, that's fair (none / 0) (#26)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:20:01 AM EST
    I think I would have said that the national popular vote should have been the tie-breaker.

    But the issue I don't know anything about is the overvotes in Jacksonville.


    national popular vote (none / 0) (#42)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:55:03 PM EST

    Why?  Don't you agree with BTD that whatever number is presented, you really can't tell who got the most national popular votes?

    Ridiculous (none / 0) (#43)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:58:26 PM EST
    the NPV winner in 2000 is not under dispute.

    Interesting assertion. (1.00 / 1) (#45)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:03:43 PM EST

    If you don't believe the certified results, what is the basis for your assertion?  

    Go play your games with someone else (none / 0) (#46)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:09:41 PM EST
    Overvotes in Florida... (none / 0) (#49)
    by oldpro on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:27:59 PM EST
    Yikes.  That is one helluva lot of invalidated ballots, never counted in the race, even though voter intent was clear.

    I understand the law in Florida has changed, as a result, for the better...


    The difference (none / 0) (#20)
    by CST on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:11:26 AM EST
    This number doesn't feel "stolen".

    The only reason florida was so close is the shenanigans that happened on election day.  Elderly Jews for Buchanon and the like.


    I never had any doubt (none / 0) (#21)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:12:26 AM EST
    about the will of the people in Florida 2000 (or nationally).

    Problem is, the ballots said what they said. . .at last count.


    Indeed (none / 0) (#25)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:17:46 AM EST
    The ballots said gore won by tens of thousands of votes.

    Well, the last official count (none / 0) (#27)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:20:48 AM EST
    when the Supreme Court ordered the counting to stop.

    Well (none / 0) (#28)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:21:24 AM EST
    Even if there's only a 51% chance that the person with the most votes is the "real winner," that's still better than a coin flip, and it's definitely going to have more legitimacy with the public.

    But there isn't a 51% cvhance of that (none / 0) (#30)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:35:07 AM EST
    Sure there is (5.00 / 1) (#33)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:49:51 AM EST
    A "statistical tie," to the extent it's a real term at all, does not mean there is a 50% chance that either outcome is valid.  It simply means you don't have a high enough degree of confidence about the correct outcome.  In the case of polling, "high enough" often means 95%!

    Let's assume a recount leaves Franken ahead by a single vote.  Let's further assume that there may well be 1000 or more miscounted ballots, even after a recount.  As long as there is an equal chance that any given error favors Franken or Coleman, then the chance that Franken is the "real winner" is greater than 50% - even though it's not very much greater.

    This can be shown mathematically, but let's try a more intuitive proof.  Imagine that I flip a coin and it happens to come up heads.  Now I tell you that I'm going to flip it 1000 more times, and then we'll report the total results of all 1001 tosses.  Do you want to bet on heads or tails, or does it not matter?  Because, quite clearly, the chance that you will have more heads than tails in those 1001 flips - given that you already know heads is ahead by a 1-0 margin - is greater than 50%.


    The problem is. . . (5.00 / 1) (#48)
    by LarryInNYC on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:22:16 PM EST
    Let's assume a recount leaves Franken ahead by a single vote.

    That you can't state that fact with any assurance.  The only thing you can pretty much guarantee in a case like that is that another recount, from scratch, would not find the same number of ballots for each candidate.

    There is some small range in which you can fairly say the outcome is actually tied.  Within that range, I think it might actually be fairer and more productive to decide the winner by flipping a  coin.  


    Well (5.00 / 1) (#50)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:29:07 PM EST
    I'm reminded of a backgammon player I know who says he counts pips by counting 3 times and then taking the average.  However I don't think that's funny to anyone but a backgammon player.

    But anyway, my example of a single vote was obviously an extreme case, where the leading candidate might actually have a 50.01% chance of being the real winner or something.  But what I'm saying is that even in the most extreme case, a coin flip can never be MORE fair than just declaring the leading candidate the winner.  At best it might be equally fair.

    And in the real world, I think the issue of legitimacy makes it a moot point anyway.  Most people believe that if you're ahead by 1 vote, you win the election.  An awful lot of people would have trouble grasping the concept that a lead of 1 vote is not a lead at all.  We'd have to try a sports analogy where "you gotta win by 2" or something.


    Those last votes. . . (5.00 / 1) (#61)
    by LarryInNYC on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 04:31:11 PM EST
    are meaningless precision.

    Report votes to the nearest 100, or the nearest 1000.  Those last 27 votes, or whatever, are just pretense.


    Flipping a coin is bad... (none / 0) (#56)
    by BigElephant on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 02:57:02 PM EST
    It looks bad for one.

    Furthermore, if we believe the vote count is effectively a coin flip then we simply pick whoever gets the most votes as the winner.  Since there is presumably a 50% chance either way from this day forward, why bother with the coin toss?  

    Now of course if it is a real tie then the coin toss makes sense.  


    Because. . . (none / 0) (#60)
    by LarryInNYC on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 04:29:36 PM EST
    if we select the person with the most votes, we're invariably left with half the population believing the election was stolen.

    With a coin flip, at least we're making it clear that no one really "won" the election.


    Actually, I think this is more accurate: (none / 0) (#62)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 04:47:03 PM EST
    if we select the person with the most votes, we're invariably left with [less than] half the population believing the election was stolen.
    Surprisingly, not nearly all the people who voted for the loser will harbor the belief that the election was stolen.

    And, also, if we select the person with the fewer votes via a coin toss or some other method, we're invariably left with most of the population knowing the election was stolen.


    Except (none / 0) (#66)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 06:03:39 PM EST
    unless the election was a literal tie, many of the people who feel that their candidate received the most votes and was the actual winner will feel like the election was stolen from them.  If their candidate loses the coin flip, of course.

    Look, of course you could write a statute that says something like, if a statewide election comes down to less than 100 votes on either side, that's so close to the human margin of error that we're just going to flip a coin rather than incur the expense of trying to divine a real winner.  I'm pretty sure any state could do that if they wanted.  But Minnesota doesn't have any law authorizing the state to declare the election a "statistical tie," so the result isn't going to have any legitimacy if someone just introduces that concept out of nowhere.

    I mean, the point that a sufficiently close election has no "real" winner is valid of course, but the suggestion that it might as well be resolved by a coin toss is a bit, if you'll pardon the expression, flip.


    Honestly, (none / 0) (#70)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Dec 05, 2008 at 01:43:14 PM EST
    Except unless the election was a literal tie, many of the people who feel that their candidate received the most votes and was the actual winner will feel like the election was stolen from them.
    to that I have nothing to say but tough noogies.

    The people who have the right to feel their candidate received the most votes are the people who's candidate the count says got the most votes.

    The votes were counted. And counted again. Brand X won. If you wanted Brand Y, get over it.

    It's probably pretty clear I wouldn't have the patience to be a politician...


    But (none / 0) (#51)
    by cal1942 on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:35:13 PM EST
    the only ACTUAL EVIDENCE that's available is the recount.

    I suppose that 10 recounts might produce 10 different counts but the only semblence of a bottom line is an actual count.

    Unless the recount yields an absolute dead heat then a coin flip is IMO an abomination.


    The two senate races that I (4.50 / 2) (#9)
    by kenosharick on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:19:33 AM EST
    was hoping to win more than any other were those in Minn. and Georgia. We lost big here in Ga. after a scurilous, lying, negative campaign (again) by the repubs. I thought their ads were so crazily over the top that they would backfire- I guess not. In Minn., Franken must fight for every ballot and do everything legally within his power to beat the forces of evil. (now I'm a little over the top)

    Entertaining (4.50 / 2) (#11)
    by Faust on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:25:00 AM EST
    but it seems to me that "in a race this tight" the de facto chooser of the victor is the set of legal bodies responsible for determining which set of exisiting ballots are valid and express some kind of discernable voter intent.

    Obviously the above method will invariably produce a result that the losing side will find invalid. But so will a coin toss. So I'd rather put my faith in human beings that are at least ostensibly trying to make good decisions as opposed to pure chance.

    But was the Supreme Court... (none / 0) (#12)
    by kdog on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:38:49 AM EST
    trying to make a good faith decision to decide the presidential election in 2000?  Or were they just rigging the thing?  

    When elections come down to lawyers and judges, I'm not sold that lawyers and judges are preferable to a good old fashioned coin-flip.  Coins don't rig anything, coins don't lie, and coins don't cheat.


    And coins don't have judgment (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by Faust on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:00:02 AM EST
    I'd rather be angry at human beings for displaying bad judgment than cede responsibility for making hard choices to chance.

    Even the scenario for making the coin toss is itself something that would be subjected to a decision by a court most likely. I mean if the count is actually tied with precisely 50% of the vote going to each candidate then sure lets toss a coin. However, if the votes are 50% +1 for one or the other side and a coin toss picks the other fellow with 50% -1 of the vote then I'm pretty sure 50% +1 of the people in the state are going to feel pretty upset.

    Either way you will wind up with lots of angry people. I'd rather be angry at people than coins.

    I'm in favor of run off elections generally anyway. If it's so close no one can figure it out reasonably its a better choice to let the system try again and see where people stand in the present moment. The run off in Georgia showed MUCH clearer results than the first election.


    Points taken... (none / 0) (#32)
    by kdog on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:43:40 AM EST
    Run-offs would probably be best and most likely to reflect the true will of the people.  Coins have a 50/50 shot, and lawyers/judges/courts may not have the will of people as there motivating factor in making a decision.

    As "one of those" who doesn't see much difference between D and R outside the superficial, deciding every election by coin-flip would be an interesting experiment though:)


    Well (none / 0) (#35)
    by Steve M on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:11:21 PM EST
    at some point cost becomes a factor.  Minnesota's "coin flip" law applies in every race all the way down to dogcatcher.  If you're a small town on a tight budget, you probably don't want to pay for a runoff to decide who gets the 5th seat on the school board; you'd just as soon flip a coin and move on.

    hah! (none / 0) (#39)
    by Faust on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:44:11 PM EST
    Well when you put it that way I almost agree.

    Especially if the coin flipping (or dice rolling) begins at the primary level. Imagine how diverse our congress would be if we chose our representatives by lots from the ground up!

    Probably our country would collapse...but maybe not. Certainly it would be hard for monied interests to control who gets into office!


    Jerome Bettis might think otherwise (none / 0) (#34)
    by magster on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:51:52 AM EST
    scroll down on this link to Thanksgiving 1998 controversy.

    I can't believe this incident isn't on Youtube.


    I remember that... (none / 0) (#41)
    by kdog on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:53:39 PM EST
    even a coin-flip isn't beyond dispute and human error, as hard as it is to believe....the proof is in the NFL Films archives!

    If we flipped a coin for every race... (3.00 / 2) (#2)
    by kdog on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 09:15:15 AM EST
    I wonder if we'd even notice a difference in the performance of our government.

    Until we have more viable options besides D and R, I don't think it's a bad idea.  At least they'd be working full-time instead of campaigning for half their term or more.  And there would be no need for candidates to sell their souls for campaign financing.

    We should give it some thought...democracy by fate.  Fate can't do much worse than the voters:)

    If we did by coin flip (none / 0) (#47)
    by blogtopus on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 01:10:46 PM EST
    Bets are that the GOP would work hard trying to make the coin flip in their favor... we might be able to get some new science out of it! Antigravity, telekinesis, whatever. :-)

    Weight up or down for (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 10:20:58 AM EST
    former career as (1) stand up comic and (2) liberal radio show talker?  

    How about a run-off? n/t (none / 0) (#36)
    by Coral on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 12:16:52 PM EST

    If the Senate declares the seat vacant (none / 0) (#54)
    by andgarden on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 02:26:41 PM EST
    then Governor Pawlenty gets to appoint a Senator until a special election can be held.

    That would probably mean we'd get a second bite at the apple in two years, and that we'd go with someone other than Franken. . .

    Vetting (none / 0) (#55)
    by lentinel on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 02:54:55 PM EST
    The coin-tosser must be properly vetted.

    If he or she has ties to a political party this must be taken into consideration.

    It would be simple to get an experienced coin-tosser who could make it land the way they want.

    Mechanical coin-tossing machines are also susceptible to rigging by partisan technicians.

    No. The coin toss is too fraught with potential for chicanery.

    It would be better for Coleman and Franken to meet in the ring.

    This is easy (none / 0) (#57)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 03:07:26 PM EST

    Have each flip a coin at the same time.  Before the toss decide which candidate gets "odds" and which gets "evens."

    Kudos (none / 0) (#65)
    by lentinel on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 05:13:28 PM EST
    I must admit that your solution seems foolproof.

    However, I do think a steel-cage match would be more colorful.


    Can they split the term? (none / 0) (#67)
    by KeysDan on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 06:20:24 PM EST
    Three years for Franken and three for Coleman. Oh, but we will have to flip a coin, to deermine which one goes first--although not as grave a decision as winner takes all of the term..

    Franken is going to loose this election (none / 0) (#58)
    by Slado on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 03:39:09 PM EST
    and Gore lost the election in 2000.

    I can't believe you're still playing that line BTD.  Proof please?

    Lost, as in Il Duece (none / 0) (#59)
    by jondee on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 03:49:41 PM EST
    and his black-robed gangster cohorts had to intervene to stop further recounts in order to make sure the next 8 years would be f*cked up.

    I'm with you (none / 0) (#69)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Dec 05, 2008 at 07:58:21 AM EST
    Who really won.  It needs to matter, it must matter.  I don't want some newspaper to have to end up employing the efforts required to find out!