“Who Should Recount Elections: People … Or Machines?”


Back in 2016, when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein asked for a recount in several key states, it seemed clear that human hands were the preferred instrument for recounting the votes in an election. Stein specifically requested a hand count in her petitions. When the state of Wisconsin refused, she sued, arguing that the computerized optical scanner machines used by most districts in the state to count paper ballots were more prone to making errors in a count. Hillary Clinton’s lawyer agreed. And so did some computer security experts.

Political scientists say the answer is clear. “There are a lot of assertions out there, and I see them constantly being made, that machines are error-prone and humans are perfect in counting,” said Charles Stewart, professor of political science at MIT. “And that doesn’t bear out.”…

Recounts are becoming more common, said Edward Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. It’s hard to count the exact number, though, because most recounts happen in local, rather than statewide, races, and because there are a lot of things colloquially called “recounts” that aren’t.

That said, there’s evidence that Americans are fighting over election results more than we did in the past. Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, came up with one estimate by searching a database of legal cases for the keyword “election” and variations on the word “challenge,” and then culling the results to remove cases that weren’t relevant. Because of this, his estimate is likely undercounting, but it shows a significant increase in challenged election results over time. There were at least 337 such cases in 2016. In 1996, he found 108.

These numbers represent three main kinds of disputes, Foley told me. First, candidates (and their lawyers) argue over what ballots should be counted and which should be thrown out as ineligible. Then, they argue over which candidate specific ballots should count for. Finally, they argue over whether all the eligible votes were counted correctly — the actual recount. Humans are much better than machines at making decisions around the first two kinds of ambiguous disputes, Stewart said, but evidence suggests that the computers are better at counting. Michael Byrne, a psychology professor at Rice University who studies human-computer interaction, agreed. “That’s kind of what they’re for,” he said.


Comments are closed.