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Noah Friedman
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Noah Friedman

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We know a lot about election fraud thanks to history, defectors, and observation.

Here's the thing about election fraud: it's either obvious or ineffective. "Obvious" is a weasel term, I guess, so let me give an example of obvious.

The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and ran a tinpot military dictatorship there. It didn't prop one up, it ran one. The Navy wrote their constitution and the Marines ran the government. No, I mean literally, not that stupid left-wing metaphors-are-real way. As an explicit policy of the US, its military commanders were also the filling the civilian roles in Haitian government.

There were, however, elections for a variety of not really in charge institutions. Here's how those worked. To vote, you'd pick up a slip of paper with the name of the candidate you wanted and put it in the ballot box. Those slips were passed out by the Marines and there was only one candidate to vote for. If that sounds like how Duvalier did his elections, congrats, you're drawing connections. It's also how Hussein did his. And so on. One candidate, ballots passed out by the military.

When I say "election fraud is either obvious or ineffective" I mean "election fraud is either Marines passing out ballots with only one name on it or ineffective". That's the sense of "obvious" I use.[1]

The other effective methods for election fraud are all like that. Changing the tally is pretty obvious because it requires an architecture of secrecy. That's why people's wariness at electronic voting makes a lot of sense to me, it can potentially provide that architecture of secrecy. Large scale ballot-stuffing requires lots and lots of ballots and teams upon teams or, again, an architecture of secrecy that lets you dump the fakes in at a single bottleneck you control, like a counting room. You know all that stuff about people standing around to observe the counting? That's why they're there, preventing that architecture of secrecy needed to let the counters make the results, if you know what I mean. But accomplishing that requires sudden black-box choke points where, mysteriously, accountability entirely disappears and observation is completely forbidden.

Less[2] tweedy methods like having people vote multiple times require large organizations acting in public. These are obvious and everyone knows they're happening; they require the buy-in of other organizations, like police. They advertise for fraudsters. Seriously: it's a job you get hired for, explicitly, or a bounty is paid.[3] If you lived in a place where it happens, you'd know who was involved because they'd tell you. Usually they'd tell you right before basically kidnapping you to use a multi-voter, changing you clothes constantly and carting you from polling place to polling place.[4] They succeed because no individual vote is obviously fraudulent even if the operation as a whole is.

I'm being a bit disingenuous here. The "ineffective" methods are mostly the same ones, mechanically, just done on a smaller scale. Some intimidation at a few places. A couple miscounts, here and there. A few hundred or thousand duplicate votes. These are less obvious because they aren't large and they're not Marines passing out ballots. But that means their effect size is naturally smaller. And, in smaller elections, there's less space to hide them. The proportion of fraud matters both to effectiveness and secrecy. A higher proportion of fraud is more effective and more obvious. A lower proportion, less effective but also less obvious. So anything not obvious[5] is only effective if an election is really close. The election needs to be decided by a few thousand votes, at most, with millions cast.

If fraud is obvious or ineffective, why bother? First: people aren't always that bright, never attribute to Machiavellian genius what can best be explained by Machiavellian incompetence.[6]

Second, though, elections serve a lot of important purposes. One is that they have an reifiable legitimacy: the winner of an election has the support of most people and, ipso facto, most of the manpower which could be used to take the position by force. Before we think anything else about democracy, think about how winning an election is a really good sign that you could, gauntlets down and roses picked, most plausibly win the game of Bigger Army Diplomacy. The more people accept the idea that elections determine political outcomes, the more likely that the winner could assemble a bigger army; many of the loser's supporters will accept the loss and the winner's supporters will be incensed. When I said "if Trump isn't the nominee, there will be riots and there should be", I meant it and now you know what I meant.[7]

They also fulfill a perfectly reasonable idea of "public will".[8] Take a tally of all the opinions, and the most commonly held is the "aggregate" opinion. This has flaws, but it also makes intuitive sense. In fact, it makes so much intuitive sense that many ideas which people propose to improve elections take this idea of public will as their starting point. They just see how different ways of measuring can have different results. Many though just rely on our improved understanding of statistics to create systems which can be accurately described as "measure twice, cut once". This idea is so reasonable that proposals offered by way of disagreement are, in many ways, mostly about improving accuracy.[9]

They also have a weirder role. They're obvious. The outcome of an election, fraudulent or legit, is obvious. There's a winner. People tend to know if they'd care who it was. This has excellent implications for succession if you think about the number of wars fought over uncertain lines of succession in monarchies. I can bring it up and you know about it. That's actually huge. I spent two paragraphs making the meaning of "obvious" obvious. Being obvious is a big deal.

So is winning the argument. Winning the argument with friends, family, coworkers, and others, society wide, every day. That's the bedrock of politics, in the end, even in authoritarian states. How you win arguments isn't obvious. In fact, "winning the argument" needs scare quotes to properly contain it. I'm "winning the argument" about policing right now. I'm not talking to many people about policing. A combination of cellphone video, stagnant policy landscape, and a large head of pressure built by people like Radley Balko have pushed a lot of the abuses I've harped on for years into the public's attention. Opinions are changing. I'm "winning the argument" without even arguing myself. A lot of that winning is happening in the more classic way of debaitng with people; I'm just not doing the debating myself. Those classic cases are winning their particular argument, but "winning the argument", as a concept, is something all these factors do together.

When you come up against someone who supports an authoritarian regime, they can give you the result of the obviously rigged election and be a little bit disingenuous. "There were Marines passing out ballots!" "As is their patriotic duty, comrade." And on and on. This won't be an argument over facts. The facts are obvious. Your interlocutor knows them, is possibly proud of them. If facts enter, it will be forcing you to recount them and explain how election fraud works. I've written a whole article about that at this point. You're probably going to give up well in advance.

You know what just happened? The regime is winning the argument even though they really shouldn't because the fraud is obvious.[10]

What frustrates me about charges of election fraud in the United States is this issue here. When people argue that election fraud is occuring, they don't use "obvious" the right way. There aren't Marines passing out ballots. They personally never looekd into a part-time job disguising carting novelists from polling-place to polling-place. They're not referring to how all the ballots were collected into a shadowy warehouse guarded by a street gange and owned by mayor. If there's fraud involved, it's the ineffective kind. The sort which works only when the election is decided by a few thousand votes, at most, with millions cast. And that's just not the kind of election they're talking about! Most recently, it's about elections decided by millions of votes with millions cast. Just before this most recent outburst of fraud accusations, it was conservatives insisting that "fake voters" were swinging elections. Likewise, it seem unlikely that such an operation wouldn't be obvious in that Marines passing out ballots way.[11] That's just not how election fraud works.

And I mean that: it doesn't work that way. People do try it but it doesn't work. You can't swing big elections by tweaking the margins a little.

The problem, fundamentally, isn't known to me. I've got suspicions, sure. The big one is how passionate people slip into epistemic closure and the way epistemic closure lets metaphorical language become literal.[12] But knock it off. I'm tired of seeing this proposed by the loser every time. This year, it's Sanders supporters. In 2012, it was Republicans. It was Republicans in 2008, too. In 2000 Marines were passing out ballots. I mean, the Supreme Court decided the election in an actual court case.[13]

Loose talk about election fraud is very damaging. While those who make the accusation see the damage it does to their opponent, they usually don't see the wider consequences. Take a different topic. Americans grossly misperceive the amount of crime and whether crime is increasing.[14] Anxiety about safety distorts perception.[15] Likewise, building up anxieties about election fraud can distort people's perception of it. They see it everywhere and it feels obvious even though they can't point to any Marines. That's very bad. People start becoming suspicious of elections themselves; not just particular elections, the whole democratic framework becomes suspect. As Hannah Arendt points out, the bedrock of authoritarianism is the collapse of political trust into a kind of conspiratorial cynicism. That's really super bad. That's how you get Marines passing out ballots.

I don't consider this an idealistic case. Remember my merits of elections above: Bigger Army Diplomacy, obviousness, winnding the argument, public will. Only one would qualify as "idealistic". The rest are wholly cynical and very literally Machiavellian.[16] They're very good reasons to protect the mechanism from fraud. They're also very good reasons to protect its legitimacy from loose accusations. The system itself isn't perfect, there are lots of problems in it, from low voter engagement to long lines, to the inability to reduce long lines if turnout is unexpectedly high. But these things aren't fraud. Election fraud is either obvious[5] or ineffective. It's not the former this year.



[1] Don't use it any other way. Had all of you made a commitment to "obvious" being obvious, I'd never have had to write two paragraphs about Haitian history and American assholery to explain what "obvious" means. Or don't. Maybe you want two paragraphs. Jerk.

[2] Read: more.

[3] It's an interesting thing, if you look it up.

[4] This is, in fact, how Edgar Allen Poe died.

[5] Remember: obvious means "Marines passing out ballots", that's our paradigmatic case.

[6] We had this phrase, "Dunning-Krueger Machiavellians", to describe people who think they're carrying out a secret and insanely clever plot which is, in fact, transparently obvious[5] and dumb.

[7] Side concerns about voter engagement and so on should be thought about carefully before raised; start with whether disengaged voters even have a candidate to fight for. I'm not saying you're wrong, just don't try my patience with cute bullshit.

[8] Reasonable, not right. There're lots of arguments about what the public will is or how you might measure it. I'll bet that the idea "what the majority says" is on the list from every brainstorming session on the topic, though. And I'll also bet that it's pretty rare for it to just get struck down immediatel along with the idea that maybe the public will is sandwiches. It's a brainstorming session, we just write down everything, even if it's a sly attempt to suggest we break for lunch

[9] Or "fidelity", really. Like converting between waves and digital signals. How do you make a stairstep pattern a wave? A wave a stairstep? How close is "close enough" or, considering our main topic, what methods really are "good enough for government work"?

[10] Remember: obvious means Marines passing out ballots, that's our paradigmatic case and very likely the immediate one as well.

[11] More precisely, in that "I and everyone I know have worked as a 'fake voter' before, or at least applied" way.

[12] Seriously, I've noticed ths a lot. Metaphors are used as linguistic shorthand. Someone "flies like an eagle" so I don't need to write a whole passage about strength and beauty. It's like an acronym: "Bob is an E.A.G.L.E.". But there's a tendency for feedback loops to forget that the metaphor is shorthand, to go from "Bob is an E.A.G.L.E." to "Bob is an EAGLE" to "watch out, I hear that Bob soars through the air and attacks people with his talons, according to Trusted News Source, he's attacked several people this year, bearing them aloft to his grim perch where they shall soon join the macabre assemblage of bones below".

[13] Not that it mattered, if the Constitution were followed, the House would have voted because neither Bush nor Gore would have a majority of Electors. The Republicans controlled the House, so there's no prize for guessing how it would go. The court case itself and the decision can be (metaphorically) litigated until the end of time, but the easiest answer was that Florida's election was too close and, so, neither infinite recounts nor arbitrarily stoppig them really yielded the correct result. What makes that answer easy is Republican control of the House: both stopping the recounts and declaring the Florida balloting null had the same result in practice, it's just that the latter has more constitutional legitimacy and less "the counters decide the election".

[14] Notice how the graphs align, too. That seems like a 9/11 effect. The perception of crime seems to be related to anxiety about safety, not crime. Septemeber 11 wasn't about street crime, but it did a lot of damage to people's sense of safety. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/17/despite-lower-crime-rates-support-for-gun-rights-increases/ft_15-04-01_guns_crimerate/

[15] Anyone who remembers an anxiety attack can testify to this. It has an immediacy there which can be easy to miss in daily life.

[16] Though famous for The Prince, Machiavelli was most interested in republicanism with that kind of idealistic pragmatism which characterized the Renaissance. He would not have seen these as "cynical". We've lost the sense of "natural" he would have used to explain this. I sometimes talk about "post-cynicism", this is what I'm talking about.



[coda] The 2000 election demonstrated a major failing of the Electoral College: it increases the probability that an election will be decided by a few thousand votes out of millions cast. The election in Florida hinged on a very few votes. Because Florida represents so many Electoral College points, those few votes really did determine the election. That's an excellent reason to rid ourselves of the Electoral College system.
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+Noah Friedman​ I remember him saying in the last days of his show that the toll of covering the news was more than he cared to take on anymore. But that is why we love him. He CARED
about what he was saying.
No one else seems too.

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Encryption sure is annoying lately.  Between the BrokenSSL bug of the day and the necessary protocol replacements, it's been months of maximum inconvenience.

firefox: No, you can't talk anymore to this wireless router which hasn't had any vendor support for almost a decade.  We deliberately disabled this with no way for you to get around it at all.  Fuck you.
pidgin: ssl handshake error talking to this xmpp server, but I won't give you any details whatsoever.  And fuck you, too.
chrome: This certificate is self-signed so I'm going to annoy you about it every single time and make you go through extra hoops until you stop even paying attention anymore.  Because fuck you.
openssh: We don't allow ssh-dss keys anymore, but since you forgot your password because you haven't even used it for close to 20 years on this one rare foreign host, there's no way for you to log in and install your shiny new but probably also-vulnerable ecdsa key.  Obviously, fuck you.
NSA: Just passing through.  But fuck you on general principles anyway.

And on it goes.
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Get off my LAN!
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These "FTL" briefs don't seem any faster than my other underwear.
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+Jym Dyer, said woman is, of course, ageless and forever young: "in the realm of light, there is no time". She is also physically distorted by Lorentz contraction, with a waistline of infinity and a height of zero, which must be hard to get underwear round.

(We tried to ask her for comments, but she is outside our light cone.)
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Three Felonies Yaks a Day
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Obvious observation is obvious.

If we are going to be a nation of wild-west gun-toting cowboys riding nuclear missiles bareback to destruction, then everyone should have the same rights and opportunity.
Police killing of Philando Castile a reminder Second Amendment and NRA campaigns don't apply to Black people
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Noah Friedman

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Spam message subject this morning: Find Latin1 Singles Right Now!

Sorry, spammer, but 8 bits just isn't enough for me anymore.
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So you're more in favour of spams that encourage you to find be-UTF8-l singles in your area?
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Regarding the terns mentioned in my previous reshare:

One of the field hands got his lunch eaten, too, a deli sandwich. He caught the bird that ate it though, and decided to take it home as a pet.

You might say he took a tern for the wurst.
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That was a cheep pun.
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I had no idea about this guy.
 
You Know, This Election I Might Just Vote For Him
An before you get all nimby pimby "Then Trump Might Win", I advise you check NJs voting history.

Electoral college is winner take all, and we go bluer than a drowned smurf. The only contest is off cycle, when voter turn out drops to single digits and our retirees run red.

Either way, I still want my pony.
A lot of folks deserve credit for keeping the RNC protests peaceful, but in my experience covering all four days, one man stood above the rest: Vermin Supreme.
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So if I decant this, does that make my decanter a pez dispenser?
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It seems like the Obama administration waited to make their statement of support for the Erdogan government until after it was clear that the coup was a failure.  I get the sense that there would have been ambivalence over either outcome.
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+Noah Friedman​​, oh, did I forgot to say that? Yes. I was only explaining that I, personally, get wary when there are expressions like "marvel at" mathematics. My criticism was about presenting mathematical modeling of reality like it was "wondrous" or as if there was some dramatic controversy, not that the article wasn't accurate.

It does not claim model equals reality, i.e. that reality could be mathematically (or any way for that matter) fully described, and it does mention Gödel and Tarski, not Church and Turing though, although Gödel kind of already made the point.

As the minimalist I am, I personally just prefer stating that modeling per se is play and only the predictive power of a model makes it work. Mathematics is the most important category of modeling, essential to models that work exhibiting the highest predictive power.

Others usually like marveling at stuff like this. I don't, but maybe that's just me.
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Story
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Call me Fishmeal.
Introduction
There are times I find myself suspecting that there is some cruel cosmic deception being perpetrated against me by something akin to descartes' evil genius.   But then I remind myself not to put descartes before the hoax.
Bragging rights
My father was a mathematician and he played the fiddle, so my childhood was full of sets and violins.
Work
Occupation
specialist in these kinds of things
Skills
yak shaving
Employment
  • Perforce Software
    Release automation developer, 2005 - present
  • Yahoo!
    Software engineer, 2004 - 2005
  • Inktomi
    Toolsmith, 1999 - 2004
  • Netscape
    Unix systems architect, 1996 - 1999
  • Computational Logic
    sysadmin, 1994 - 1996
  • Free Software Foundation
    sysadmin, editor, distribution, 1990 - 1994