08 December 2011

The revolving nightmare

[The third part of a series of essays on the US Presidential Election 2004, written while in Florida as a member of a team of USinternational election monitors]
All “exits” closed!
The story of exit polls and the huge discrepancy between these and the final “result”, reminded me of a line from the popular Eagles’ song, Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”.  I think a lot of people have heard the most abiding definition of statistics, “there are lies, damned lies and there is statistics!” but this would not have prepared any statistician to the problem of exit polls in this election. 

Ok, in 2004 the media networks got it wrong.  They called it for Bush, then for Gore and finally, for Bush courtesy of the scandalous fraud perpetrated in Florida.  This time they were careful.  They had fine-tuned the exit polling exercise.  They had complicated statistical models in place that were expected to minimize the margin of error, usually to 2-3 percentiles.  Kerry was leading Bush by margins greater than that country-wide, and in some places (which he ultimately lost) he was heading for landslide wins.  How could they get it so wrong?  Surely the people doing this were not fifth graders who had flunked in arithmetic? 

During the 12:20 a.m. on election night, in an Associated Press Radio News feed a reporter detailed how Karen Hughes had earlier sat George W. Bush down to inform him that he'd lost the election. The exit polls were clear: Kerry was winning in a landslide. "Bush took the news stoically," noted the AP report.  Twelve hours later, John Kerry conceded the election to Bush. 

According to ABC-TVs exit polls, for example, Kerry was slated to carry Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa, all of which Bush carried. The only swing state the network had going to Bush was West Virginia, which the president won by 10 points.  Yet a few hours after the exit polls were showing a clear Kerry sweep, as the computerized vote numbers began to come in from the various states the election was called for Bush.

What really happened to these voters and their votes?  Was it some dirty trick to keep people happy for a while only to bring the world down on them like a ton of bricks? 
I don’t know much about statistical models, but I can think of possible scenarios whereby prediction was rendered irrelevant and incompetent.

Maybe the pollsters didn’t know whether their subjects were on their way to vote or on their way out.  Maybe the voters didn’t know if they were coming or going.  Maybe the pollsters made it worse by not knowing if they were coming or going either.  Maybe many people actually voted for Bush, but didn’t want to reveal that red side of their brain to the world, so they said “Kerry” as they exited. 

Maybe the “voters” were just passing through like random radical cloud that blots the happy and complacent, hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil skies that make up the US Conscious. Maybe they came up to the voting machine, decided, in a quasi-radical kind of way, that in the end their vote wouldn’t count (maybe they were right, actually) and just walked out and when queried by the diligent pollster said “any old thing”.  Maybe the Democrats had a sophisticated voting pattern in place, strategically getting into line and exiting the polling station so that they and not Bush-voters would get polled.  For what purpose, we do not know, of course.  Maybe the pollsters themselves were all over-zealous, ostrich-like buffoons, whose couldn’t allow their pencils move towards the Bush column on their enumeration cards or whatever pieces of inconsequential paper they were jotting this misinformation on. 

Maybe all this is wrong.  Maybe the voters voted, the pollsters polled, and everything was methodologically above-board, until the data was entered into a computer and the results laid out on an Excel file, at which point the statistician (a Democrat, naturally, and strategically “placed” in the Prediction Industry) cooked the numbers in Kerry’s favor.  Maybe even these people got it right, but something happened when the relevant newscaster was reading out the results for public consumption. 

The truth, then, some would argue, is that if there was limited access (however you may want to define that word), exits too were restricted.  There was an Iron Curtain.  And the USA has not had its Gorbachev and its Perestroika is yet to come.  Let the Party decide, for the Party is always right.  Right?  Wrong! 

You see, we shouldn’t be so suspicious.  Thinking the unthinkable at this time when the country is in the middle of a war for democracy and justice for all people (not infidels of course, like that guy Osama and the fanatics in Fallujah and other infidel-infested areas).  Yes, let us not think the unthinkable now. 

No, no conspiracy theories now, mates.  Let us be stoic and accept the given wisdom that the system works on well-oiled wheels.  Let us believe that computers don’t err, and forget that they are made to work by real human beings, partisan and capable of fraud.  Let us brush aside allegations of post-voting tampering when it came to collating results.  That cannot happen.  This is the United States of America, for “god’s” sake.  This is Jesus Land governed by the ten commandments, which include “Thou Shall not Lie”.  That, friends, is the lie of the land.  Accept or perish.

What is wrong if entrances and exits are conflated and democracy gets trapped in a revolving door that will not yield a result that is truly reflective of popular will and/or a result that can be celebrated as such an articulation?  They say that justice should not just be done, but it must seem to be done.  Why can’t people forget the first past and be happy with the second?  Why shouldn’t the people of the USA, like the editor of the Sentinel “accept” that the election was “free and fair” and disregard as rubbish the stuff that the alternative media is putting out about fraud and induced computer malfunction?  Why can’t they live happily in that never-never land of doors revolving too fast for us to enter or if we already have for us to exit?  Why can’t they spin with the spin doctors, dance to their music, be in step to the rhythm of holy drums beating out the machine-gun staccato “status quo status quo status quo status quo status quo status quo status quo status quo”?  

The Man has spoken.  He says “Abide”.  He says more.  He says “Thou Shalt Abide”.  It is the age of elevens.  Seven-Eleven. Nine-Eleven.  And Commandment Number Eleven.  It is the Eleventh Hour.  Enjoy.  Apocalypse is nigh!