Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Madison's primary was a laid-back affair, but Channel 3 tried to interject some controversy

A Perfect Day to Saunter to the Polls in Madison
It was a perfect day to saunter, rather than hurry, to the polls. Here in Madison, people could take their time, enjoy the beautiful weather, go for walk or do some shopping, run some errands maybe -- no hurry, and no worry about lines. Since all the real excitement was in the Republican gubernatorial primary, voters in heavily Democratic Madison took it easy, and polling proceeded sedately in the Capital City.

On the Republican side, Scott Walker won a remarkably easy victory over Mark Neumann in that race for the gubernatorial nomination. For the most part, state residents seemed happy just to have the nonstop TV spots ease off briefly before picking up again for the November election.

Madison's Channel 3 seemed to be trying to add some much-needed excitement to the reporting on their website when they stirred the pot with this highly (un)scientific online poll: Should Scott Walker Have Won? In early returns (12:04 a.m.), 89 percent of respondents said the voters had made a mistake. Of course, that's based on a sample of a small number of nightowls -- nine, to be exact. Having a button that can be pushed for results while the poll is underway is just one more example of how silly online polls are. Say goodbye to standard polling technique and concepts like statistical significance and sampling error -- and welcome to the wonderful world of pseudostatistical entertainment. I love the neat percentages that slice and dice the nine respondents with such seeming (and totally illusory) precision.

Still, one might argue that no harm was done. It's just a bit of harmless entertainment, and no one takes these things seriously. True enough. But I wonder about the poll question in the first place. "Should Scott Walker have won?" -- what does that even mean? Under our system of government, isn't there only one legitimate answer to that question, the one provided by the voters as they cast their ballots? Isn't that what democracy is all about?

In a close election and/or one marred by allegations of fraud (2000, anyone?), it might make sense to ask whether the election outcome was fair. But then what you're suggesting is that the will of the voters was thwarted, by a miscount of the ballots and/or fraud. But there was no such allegation whatsoever, so what did Channel 3's question even mean?

It would have made more sense to ask which candidate people expected to vote for in November. That would have been no more statistically valid, but it would certainly have been more relevant.

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