Election 2008: Struggle Between Tradition and Innovation

Today is Monday, November 3rd. Election Day, when the U.S. picks its 44th President, is less than 24 hours away. And as of Saturday night, just 72 hours before the polls close, 27 MILLION early votes and absentee ballots had already been placed. This represents almost 13% of the total population that’s eligible to vote this year, and 22% of all the people who voted in 2004. (The numbers are from Michael McDonald’s dataset; he is an associate professor specializing in voting behaviors. The VEP column in his table represents the total number of eligible voters over 18 and not in prison, on probation or on parole. )

Remember, long ago (or maybe more recently) in statistics class, when you learned that you could learn a lot about the properties of a population by taking a random sample? Having approximately 20% of the vote already in from a sample expected to be between 120 and 150 million is extremely significant – remember, these are actual votes, and not someone’s report of what they may or may not vote “for real”. Assuming that systematic errors have not played a large part in early voting behavior, the winner is already determined, and we just don’t know it yet.

“We go around in a circle and suppose, but the answer lies in the middle and knows.” –Robert Frost

However, ignoring systematics is indeed a significant assumption, one that’s discussed by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, in his excellent explanation of the accuracy of polls. Which is why the campaigns are rightly pushing EVERYONE to get out there and vote – to mitigate the impact of systematic errors. (After all, you don’t want to stop voting if the other side keeps voting.) So if you are reading this and you haven’t voted yet, DO IT! Go vote!

I see three potential scenarios:

  • Breakthrough: the decision has already been made, is accurately reflected in the actual sample of early votes, and the votes placed on Tuesday won’t change the pattern at all. The additional votes amount to nothing (other than beating down or insuring against systematic error).
  • Breakdown: a flood of voters overwhelm the capacity of the voting stations, the voting machines just can’t handle it, and the polls close before everyone can get through the door and get an error-free ballot submitted. I think there might be social unrest if this is the case.
  • Breakout: a single demographic (or two) comes out in droves to vote on Tuesday, breaking out of wherever they’ve been hiding, and shifting the balance of the race in a huge upset. Certainly a possibility.

Whatever happens, the 2008 Election reflects a mythical struggle between structure, order, hierarchy, stability, and tradition on one side; revolution, dynamism, community, collaboration, and exploration on the other. One potential leader clearly has more experience on one side of the coin, and the other potential leader is stronger in the opposite area. Each candidate has plenty of experience on the side of the coin he’s promoting. The difference will be how the voter determines which standard the candidate’s experience should be measured against!

Why am I interested in all this? First, because polling is measurement, and quality assurance requires effective measurement. But more importantly, because the themes of this election parallel the struggle that many organizations face with quality and innovation – getting the job done reliably is paramount, and experience is important, but we cannot lose sight of the way we need to reinvent ourselves and our companies to continue being competitive. Accepting the wilder side, where structures are not sacrosanct and community is more productive than hierarchy, is hard to swallow.

The old methods that tell us how to manage projects, do budgeting, evaluate employees, and manage change are incomplete in such a global, dynamic competitive environment. New organizational models that help us deal with complexity more effectively will be required, but will the 2008 Election usher one into the institution of government?

36 hours from now (hopefully), we’ll know.


Other Resources:

  • Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, keeps a 2008 Election site with the most comprehensive collection of data-based reports I’ve encountered
  • CNN’s early voting map shows how many early ballots were cast according to state and proportion of Democrats/Republicans voting
  • If the whole world could vote, according to the Economist, the “Global Electoral College” would be stacked.