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    • Groups and Coalitions: Politics Chapter V
      Previous: Identity (Introduction and Table of Contents) Politically active groups form because of ideology and identity: they have beliefs about how the world should be; those beliefs are emotional and create both identification with other people who have the beliefs and shared desire to change the world or keep the world in line with how the ideologies pres […]
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Stealing Iran . . . Stupidly

The statistics don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. The stealing of the Iran’s June 12 election has been obvious from the start. But that’s the nature of statistics; it’s real value is telling you that you what don’t know, it’s eliminating false positives. Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has done the work to show that this disgraceful event really is a fact. I saw his article (pdf) when it first came out in mid-June, but seeing it again in Science News jogged me to talk about it. From SN:

“[Iranian election data] suggests that the actual outcome should have been pretty close,” says Mebane…. The official results showed Ahmadinejad getting almost twice as many votes as his closest rival.

Mebane cautions that the anomalous statistics could imaginably have an innocent explanation, that limited data is available, and that he is not himself an expert on Iranian politics. Nevertheless, he concludes that “because the evidence is so strikingly suspicious, the credibility of the election is in question until it can be demonstrated that there are benign explanations for these patterns.”

[A couple of paragraphs follow discussing the distribution of numbers in real data, known as Benford’s Law.]

When Mebane studied polling station-level data from Iran, he found that the numbers on the ballots for Ahmadinejad and two of the minor candidates didn’t conform to Benford’s Law well at all.

In any fair election, a certain percentage of votes are illegible or otherwise problematic and have to be discarded. When people commit fraud by adding extra votes, they often forget to add invalid ones. Suspiciously, Mebane found that in towns with few invalid votes, Ahmadinejad’s ballot numbers were further off from Benford’s Law — and furthermore, that Ahmadinejad got a greater percentage of the votes.

“The natural interpretation is that they had some ballot boxes and they added a whole bunch of votes for Ahmadinejad,” Mebane says.

Mebane also received data from the 2005 Iran election that aggregated the votes of entire towns…. If Ahmadinejad fared poorly in a particular town in 2005, you wouldn’t expect him to do especially well there in 2009 either. …

The best relationship the model found produced 81 outliers out of 320 towns in the analysis, a strikingly high percentage. Another 91 fit the model, but poorly. In the majority of these 172 towns, Ahmadinejad did better than the model would have predicted.

“This is not necessarily diagnostic of fraud,” Mebane says. “It could just be that the model is really terrible.” But since the first analysis gives evidence of fraud, the cities the model flags as problematic are the sensible ones to scrutinize.

For me, the new bit of data in all that is just how bad they were at faking it. That gives watchdog groups a big opportunity if they can somehow get at the raw data before it’s destroyed.

I only regret that we in the US, with our long string of elections-as-theater, don’t have the Iranian opposition’s fire, and that we do have much more polished cheaters.

Update, Jul 24, 2009. I see today that there was another excellent article on the BBC on this topic, providing yet more examples of voting anomalies.

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this, quixote. I don’t really understand how the study was done. I’ll have to try to read the article. But I did hear that shortly after the election, many ballot boxes were destroyed. It does seem that the ballot boxes were stuffed, and rather clumsily.

    • But I did hear that shortly after the election, many ballot boxes were destroyed. It does seem that the ballot boxes were stuffed, and rather clumsily.

      Kind of like Chicago’s elections BB….. 🙂

  2. They should come to Florida and learn from the masters: butterfly ballots, hanging chads, pregnant chads, and if all else fails, have all of the votes count at a value of 0.5. That way, our votes come out exactly as planned.

  3. I went to high school with Walter although I can’t say I knew him very well. He was a grade behind me and was considered one of the school brainiacs. Really really smart.

    Anyway, it’s great to see that he’s putting that intellect to good use!

    • Cool! I don’t think anyone from my high school ever amounted to anything.

  4. This is really interesting. Especially for a numbers geek like me …

  5. I cross-posted this at Shakesville, and a statistician there was a bit squiddy-eyed about Benford’s law. Said it didn’t apply to elections. As I said there, my feeling on that is:

    When described in Science News, it sounded like a strange measure: basically I gather it says that the first digit of a number will be one much more often than, say, five or eight or nine. They explain why that is, but I must admit I don’t get it.

    However, I could easily imagine, and would actually expect, that distribution would not be anywhere close to even. People are very bad at imitating a random pattern. And the other thing cheaters do, if they know about an expected result, is mimic it too closely. So a perfect fit to Benford’s law would have been suspicious too, although that’s not what happened here.

    So, as I see it, the point being made is that the numbers are suspect by this one arcane measure. Then when you look at towns, the ones with the improbable “wins” for Ahmadinejad were also the ones with odd numerical patterns in their results.

    Even if you completely disregard the Benford stuff, there’s plenty of suspect data from other angles. The fact that both avenues point in the same direction, even if one is weak, is telling as far as I’m concerned.

    There was an interesting discussion on Slashdot (of all places) a week or two ago about how effectively the Iranian government has used suppression of strategic parts of the Internet and communications to keep dissent from organizing.

    The geeks made the good point that once we’re all “in the cloud” and They turn the cloud off, you’re actually worse off than before we had all this communicating.

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