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Error Rates

By Matthew Yglesias

"Error Rates"

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I find that an awful lot of problems are caused by people’s inability to understand things like error rates and big numbers. If a pharmaceutical company came out with a new anti-depression drug and gave it to a million people suffering from depression, of whom 970,000 were helped you wouldn’t turn around and conclude that the company was perpetrating a deliberate fraud based on the fact that “tens of thousands” of patients got no relief. You’d say that the medicine was helpful in 97 percent of the indicated cases. ACORN is trying — and succeeding — in an effort to register a lot of new voters.

There’s simply no way to gather over one million new voter registration forms without some of the forms having been filled out with bogus information. You could ask the group to automatically toss out the obviously wrong ones — some guy saying he’s Tony Romo, someone else saying he’s Mickey Mouse — but the law requires them to hand all the forms in to prevent them from tossing out forms filled out by people who say they want to register Republican. Consequently, if you go out and register over a million voters you’ll wind up with a lot of bad forms being submitted. But just as 30,000 is a lot of people and also only a very small fraction of one million people, when you’re talking about registering over a million new voters you’d need orders of magnitude more bad forms to constitute real evidence of a systematic fraud campaign.

Meanwhile, if you want to reduce the number of bad forms submitted, you have basically three options:

  1. Make voter registration much easier and more automatic so as to reduce the need for registration drives.
  2. Let registration organizers toss out forms.
  3. Stop all registration drives by conflating good faith errors with systematic, criminal fraud.

Conservatives like option (3) because they don’t like it when large numbers of people vote. And that’s what this is about, finding a backdoor way to delegitimize all efforts at large-scale registration drives. It’d be as if instead of trying to ban computers (obviously impossible) you passed a law saying you could throw someone in jail for selling a computer that’s prone to crashing. It’s computer sales fraud — the thing’s supposed to work! Well, nobody knows how to build a crash-free computer so, bye bye computer industry.

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