I’m really not a political person, but I found myself getting caught up in this year’s presidential election. I think it’s because this is the first time I’ve been on Facebook during an election, and it’s hard to ignore all the political mumbo-jumbo that goes on. Even though I generally try not to get into political debates, there are a few subjects that I have hard time resisting. Plus, it irks me when people post things without exercising their critical thinking skills. That’s what really gets me riled up.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: a recent petition posted on the White House website. The petition claims that there was voter fraud in the recent election. Here’s the text of the petition:
Recount the election!
It has become blatantly obvious the voter fraud that was committed during the 2012 Presidential elections. In one county alone in Ohio, which was a battleground state, President Obama received 106,258 votes . . . but there were only 98,213 eligible voters. It’s not humanly possible to get 108% of the vote!
If ID laws had been enforced (which the administration is completely against because that meant they would lose) then this wouldn’t be an issue.
The first thing that ran through my mind upon reading the petition was this: Where are you getting your data? The petition provides no links and doesn’t even mention which county in Ohio they are referring to. Great.
The fun thing about these petitions is that literally anybody can post them, and yet there’s no way that I know of to identify who posts them. So obviously, we should just trust them blindly.
In this case, a little digging turned up that the petition must have been referring to Wood County, Ohio. An article on Cleveland.com reported that Wood County had 106,258 registered voters as of September 2, 2012, and 98,213 eligible voters. Good enough so far. Those numbers do look suspicious. If there are only 98,213 people eligible to vote, how could they possibly have 106,258 people registered to vote?
Let’s look at where the numbers came from (more digging!). At the bottom of the chart, we find out that they come from a Plain Dealer analysis of data from the Ohio Secretary of State (for the number of registered voters, I would assume) and the U.S. Census Bureau (for the number of eligible voters, i.e. the number of people over 18 in the county). The last census was in 2011, where it was reported that 126,355 people lived in Wood County. Of those, 21.3% were under 18, leaving 99,441 people of voting age in 2011. That number must have been modified somehow to reflect the number of eligible voters in 2012. The number is pretty close to what Cleveland.com reported, so maybe the Plain Dealer analysis of the numbers is fairly accurate. But here’s the thing: it’s still an estimate.
And the data on the number of registered voters isn’t foolproof, either. When people die, it takes time to get them off the rolls. In North Carolina there were 27,500 dead people still on the voter rolls. (Update: A commenter below pointed out that Wood County is home to a major university, where the fluctuating student population probably makes it impossible to keep truly accurate voter rolls.) So we can’t put 100% of our trust in the data on the number of registered voters any more than we can on the number of eligible voters. Either one could be inaccurate.
So what are we to do? Luckily, all of that doesn’t matter much, because we’ve been asking the wrong question. The makers of the petition have already gotten us on the wrong track. Let’s pretend the numbers are correct for a moment and go back to what the petition actually said. The petition said “President Obama received 106,258 votes . . . but there were only 98,213 eligible voters.”
Somehow the petition has taken the number of registered voters and substituted it for the number of votes Obama got. I doubt that President Obama received 106,258 votes—unless every single one of the registered voters did in fact vote for Obama. What are the chances that 100% of the registered voters voted for a single candidate in a swing state? Luckily, that’s pretty easy to find out.
Source #1: Google Politics & Elections (click on Ohio, then hover over Wood County, the blue one just between Toledo and Findlay on the top left of the map)
According to both of these reliable sources, Obama got 31,596 votes in Wood County. That’s only 50.9% of the registered voters.
The petition was right about one thing. It’s definitely not possible to get 108% of the vote, not even with some very creative misinterpretation of the data.
Does that mean there’s nothing wrong with the voting process? No. Maybe we could start by purging all the dead people from the voting rolls. Maybe something can be done about voter ID laws. I haven’t researched that subject and don’t really care to. For now, I’m content to have avoided being tricked into signing a flawed petition from an unidentifiable source.
Note: I should mention that I owe a lot of the research in this post to an article on the Daily Kos. I didn’t link to it at first because I disapprove of the article’s tone. Spare me the name calling and just give me the facts. But I feel I owe them the link.