Not Those Midterms

What our midterms need is a sensible counting tool. Like this Sharp Elsimate EL 428.

I was reminded recently of a time a few years ago when I sent my students an email on November 4, 2014 with the following addendum “P.S. Don’t forget to vote in the midterms today.” The next day I was greeted with some genuine and totally unanticipated confusion. Students asking “What do you mean? Are we voting on when our midterm happens? I thought it was going to be take home!” And I realized the majority of them had no idea what a midterm election was. And now, in retrospect, it seems quaint that there was a time so recently that midterm elections weren’t a full blown three ring circus.

Anyhow, I don’t need to remind you that we had midterm elections last week. This time I’m quite certain my students could tell there were midterms — beyond the one they took in Calculus — going on. I’m sure that even the alien probe Oumuamua could tell from outer space that we were having midterms last week.

The midterms were a big deal this year, so big, in fact, that the voting eligible percentage of the population that turned up was the highest in 50 years. And these really high turnouts meant some really long lines, many rightfully irate voters, and lots of people who were rendered unable to vote. Laura Albert, who writes the blog Punk Rock Operations Research, says, “legally, you can only vote once. But if you vote early, you can enable more than one vote to be cast.” Albert frames the process of voting in terms of queuing theory and explains the different strains on the system that can cause a blockage in the flow of voters and what can be done about them. One of the strains that can be alleviated pretty easily is the number of people entering the queue. This can be done, she says, by voting early. Lots of people took this advice, and in what was a kind of crazy — but also kind of unsurprising — turn, more people voted early in Texas this year than voted at all in 2014!

Gerrymandering has been a hot topic over the last several years. I blogged about Hacking, Cracking, and Packing last year, Fivethirtyeight did a series of podcasts for The Gerrymandering Project, and the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group led by Moon Duchin and Justin Solomon has been busy looking for mathematical and computational tools to solve the redistricting problem. If you’re looking for a quick easy demo of gerrymandering, I liked this tweet from @_WTProject about creatively chopping up a 25 district city. It would be a fun starter project for students thinking about gerrymandering for the first time, and it can be generalized in all kinds of fun ways.

Once the districts have been decided and the votes have been cast the problem of counting the votes still remains. That should be easy right? lol.

I was reminded of this great article, “How to Count” from Brian Hayes that appeared in American Scientist back in 2001, a gentler time, but a time when vote counting was decidedly on our minds. He gives a nice overview of classical counting in Platonic mathematics where “chad are never hanging, and every count is full, fair and accurate. But that’s not the world we live and count in.” Hayes talks about cascading counting errors and particularly how voting machines might be vulnerable to such errors, propagating and amplifying errors in arithmetic as counts are consolidated and tabulated.

As I write this post today Sunday November 11th votes are still being counted, and hopefully the counts are error free. And while the Florida election officials tabulate the midterm results, I’ll be counting up some midterm results of my own. No, not those midterms. These midterms.

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