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Coincidental Risks

By Jim Horning

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 47 No. 4, Page 112
10.1145/975817.975849


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The story of the Aceville elections has received some attention in the national press, but it is worth considering from a Risks perspective. This column is based on reports by AP (Affiliated Press, "Unusual Election Results in Ohio Town," 2/30/04) and Rueters ("Losers Question Ohio Election," 2/30/04). The Aceville, OH, municipal elections last Februarythe city's first time using the SWERVE electronic voting systemled to the election of the alphabetically first candidate in all 19 races. This is an astonishing coincidence. Furthermore, every winning candidate, and Measure A, garnered 100% of the votes counted.

"I am extremely gratified by this mandate," said mayor-elect Neuman E. Alfred, who received 7,215 votes in a town with 7,213 registered voters.

Byron Augusta, CEO of Advanced Automatic Voting Machines (AAVM), which supplied the SWERVE system, denied there was anything suspicious about the coincidence that Alfred was also the AAVM technician in charge of the new voting machines. "We are confident of the integrity of our employees, which is reflected in their unblemished record of electoral success. Reports that Alfred installed undocumented 'software patches' the day before the election are completely unfounded. We could prove this to you, except that the machines now contain the software upgrade that Alfred installed the day after the election. Anyhow, our software was once certified tamper-proof by the Federal Election Commission. Any suggestion of hanky-panky is scurrilous and un-American. We were unquestionably the low-cost bidder."

Ohio Supervisor of Elections Ava Anheuser expressed no surprise that the alphabetically first candidate won every race. "Don't you believe in coincidence?" she asked. "This is an example of Adam Murphy's Law: 'If it's logically possible, sooner or later it's bound to happen.' AAVM downloaded the totals from the voting machines three times. There's nothing else to recount."

Rueters reported several voters claimed to have voted for losing candidates, including mayoral candidate Zeke Zebronski, who said, "I know this election was crooked. I voted for myself three times, and still got no votes." However, the Aceville Advertiser conducted an investigation and concluded the complaints were the work of "a small group of out-of-town academic Luddites with a paper fetish," and "an even smaller group of agitators for 'alphabetic equality'." "They should remember that 'America' starts and ends with A," chided Advertiser Editor-in-Chief Ada Augusta.

Pundits are divided on whether this election was a statistical fluke, or is the harbinger of a statewide, or even national, trend. But many politicians are taking no chances. The Democratic Party is scrambling to find an A presidential candidate. "We just don't see how Dean or Kerry can beat Bush in this environment," said party spokeswoman April Brown. The newly renamed All American Party's entire Ohio slate has filed to legally change their names, to Aaron Aaren, Abigail Aaren, and so on. "It's like one big family," said party secretary Absalom Aaren, "and we expect to do very well in the next election."

The American Association of Non-Critical Thinkers has pressed for national adoption of the SWERVE system. Spokeswoman Ada Augusta stressed "This is the only available system that guarantees that your vote will be counted, whether you can cast it or not. And it will bring jobs to Aceville." Measure A provided tax-exempt bond funding for the Aceville Automation Park, which will house new headquarters for both AAVM and the Advertiser.

On a lighter note, the American Automobile Association was elected Dog Catcher, even though it wasn't on the ballot. "This seems to be the first time a write-in candidate has been elected without any write-ins," said an AAA insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Regular readers of "Inside Risks" realize there is an important distinction between coincidence and causality. The fact that A preceded B does not mean that A caused B. The order of the candidates probably didn't influence enough voters to change Aceville's landslide results. However, "out of an abundance of caution," election officials should have followed the advice of People for Randomized Alphabetic Ballots (PRAY4Ps). Putting names on the ballot in random order preserves faith in the fairness of the election. Of course, it is still possible for a random permutation to leave names in alphabetical order. Wouldn't that be a coincidence? I'd be happy to risk it.

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Author

Jim Horning ([email protected]) is a member of the American Association for April Foolishness.


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