March 30, 2017

The Silver Effect: What We Can Learn from Poll Aggregators

For those who now think Nate Silver is god, here’s a question: Can Nate Silver make a prediction so accurate that Nate Silver himself doesn’t believe it?

Yes, he can–and he did. Silver famously predicted the results of Election 2012 correctly in every state. Yet while his per-state predictions added up to the 332 electoral votes that Obama won, Silver himself predicted that Obama’s expected electoral vote total was only 313. Why? Because Silver predicted that Silver would get some states wrong. Unpacking this (pseudo-)paradox can help us understand what we can and can’t learn from the performance of poll aggregators like Nate Silver and Princeton’s Sam Wang in this election.
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Voting technology issues in Virginia on election day

I spent Election Day in one of the command centers for the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. The command center was accepting calls from New Jersey, Maryland, DC, and Virginia, but 95% of the technology issues were from Virginia. I was the designated “technology guy”, so pretty much everything that came through that center came to me. This gave me a pretty good perspective on the scope of issues. (I don’t know about the non-technology issues, although I heard discussions of issues like demanding more ID than is required, voter intimidation, etc.)

Following is a summary of what I saw. What’s most interesting is that if you divide things into “easy to solve” and “hard to solve”, the “easy to solve” ones are all in places using optical scan, and the “hard to solve” are all in places using DREs (colloquially known as “touch screens”, although not all of them are).
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Get Out the Vote, Cee-Lo Style?

This semester, Ed Felten and I are teaching a Freshman Seminar called “Facebook: The Social Impact of Social Networks.” This week, the class is discussing a recent article published in the journal Nature, entitled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization“. The study reveals that if Facebook shows you a list of your closest friends who have voted, you are more likely to do so yourself. It is a fascinating read both because it is probably the first very-large-scale controlled test of social influence via online social networks, and because it appears that without much work the company was able to spur about 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

I confess that last night I watched some of the wildly popular reality TV competition The Voice. What can I say? The pyrotechnics were more calming than the amped-up CNN spin-zoners. It was the first day that the at-home audience began voting for their favorites. Carson Daly mentioned that the show would take the requisite break on Election Night, but return in force on Wednesday. (Incidentally, I can’t decide whether or not this video urging us to “vote Team Cee-Lo” is too clever by half).
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