David Michael Miller
On Aug. 16, a reputable political news website published a piece by Roger Stone, one of Donald Trump’s longtime confidantes. In it, Stone reinforced Trump’s recent assertion that the upcoming presidential election might be “rigged.”
Stone called out Wisconsin, specifically, as a hotbed for fixed elections. “There are strong indications that Scott Walker and the Reince Priebus machine rigged as many as five elections.”
The evidence of this? “Mathematician and voting statistic expert Richard Charnin has produced a compelling study by comparing polling to actual results and exit polls to make a compelling case for voting machine manipulation in the Badger state.”
But there was little examination of the “compelling study” that Stone cited as evidence.
Among vote-fixing conspiracy buffs, Richard Charnin is revered as a genius. His work is rife with impenetrable equations and links to massive spreadsheets.
Charnin and his followers allege that “vote flipping” is the most common election-fixing technique. Supposedly, operatives hack into vulnerable electronic voting systems and exchange the vote totals of one candidate for another.
For the sake of efficiency and stealth, these operatives flip as few reporting units (precincts, wards, etc.) as possible, just enough to give their favored candidate a plausible but convincing overall victory. The more voters in a reporting unit, the more profitable a flip in its results will be for the favored candidate.
Charnin claims to have proved that this method was employed in the 2014 Wisconsin gubernatorial election through “cumulative vote share analysis.”
At first glance, his analysis is pretty convincing. Charnin sorted each Wisconsin county by reporting unit, ascending from units with the fewest number of voters to those with the most. He then showed that a number of counties, especially large Democratic leaning-ones, had a pro-Republican favorability in the reporting units with the largest number of voters, relative to the bulk of reporting units in the county. "This is counterintuitive,” writes Charnin in his blog. “Strong turnout always favors the Democrats...larger wards are generally in Democratic strongholds.
“The counties that look the most suspicious by the upward slope of Walker shares in large units and wards are Ashland, Brown, Kenosha, Dane, Eau Claire, Jefferson, Milwaukee, Racine, Sheboygan, Winnebago, Waukesha."
Charnin has called his Wisconsin cumulative vote share analysis “the smoking gun.”
When discussing Wisconsin’s election reporting units, Charnin seems to use the terms “ward,” “precinct” and “unit” interchangeably, or at least carelessly. His apparent lack of understanding of how reporting units work in Wisconsin is at the root of his erroneous conclusion.
Under Wisconsin law, municipalities with 35,000 or more inhabitants must report their election results by ward. So a city like Madison is divided up into as many reporting units as it has wards. Some of these Democratic-stronghold wards are indeed fairly large.
But municipalities with fewer than 35,000 inhabitants (towns, villages and smaller cities) are allowed to combine multiple wards into a single reporting unit, subject to some districting restraints. One reporting unit in the village of Cottage Grove combined 10 wards in 2014. This practice means that, on average, suburban and rural reporting units are actually larger than their single-ward urban counterparts.
As a matter of fact, in 2014, Dane County’s 17 largest reporting units were located outside of Madison. Brown County’s 19 largest reporting units were located outside of Green Bay.
Given what we know about the urban/rural political divide in Wisconsin, it’s no wonder Republicans’ cumulative vote shares grew as Charnin added increasingly larger reporting units to his county analyses.
In a second major component of his study, Charnin compares raw data from exit poll surveys with final election results. Because more Wisconsinites told exit pollsters that they voted Democrat, claims Charnin, the Democrats should have won these elections.
Unlike the pre-election polls we see from organizations like Pew, Rasmussen and Marquette Law School, raw exit poll surveys are a methodological mess. Exit pollsters — who literally stand at polling place exits, flagging people down — do not have the wherewithal to make sure that their surveys are filled out by a representative cross-section of voters. For example, “younger voters are more likely to agree to participate in an exit poll,” according to Joe Lenski, the lead researcher for Edison Research, America’s premier exit polling organization.
The raw results of exit poll surveys are adjusted after election day to correct for selection biases. As Lenski explains, “if the group of voters who refuse to respond to an exit poll differ from those who do participate...that would introduce a source of error that is impossible to calculate based upon the information that we have before the polls close.” Once these biases are accounted for, exit polls yield valuable demographic information.
Reached by email, Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, offered this verdict: “Exit polls are valuable for understanding who voted for whom but are subject to a variety of issues that make them unreliable estimates of the vote results.”
I have, in the past, been made to feel naïve for rejecting the conspiracy mindset. Only a sucker would fail to recognize that we exist in a Matrix-like rendition of reality, where shadowy overlords control pretty much everything.
It is becoming clear to me that the self-styled skeptics who peddle this mindset are the credulous ones.
Yes, far-fetched allegations sometimes prove true. (For a brief time, Watergate was dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.”) But time and time again, much more often than not, the conspiracy mongers’ fervent alarms are exposed as a perverse form of wishful thinking. Carl Sagan said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But when it comes to election systems rigging in America, I’m looking for just a bit of solid evidence. If such evidence ever presents itself, the most fervent alarm will be raised by me.