Trusting Election Results—It’s All About Data Quality

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Click here to learn more about author Danette McGilvray.

As we are in the middle of the U.S. election season, I find myself thinking of how trustworthy elections are built upon accurate data.

Many of us recall a situation in which doubt was cast over election results—the presidential election of 2000. It was a tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, with the critical turning point eventually centered on the votes in Florida.

Initially, the news declared that Gore was winning Florida, and therefore the presidency. As the night wore on, however, news reports came in of Bush winning the Florida votes. The data many news anchors relied upon was inaccurate. As NBC anchor Tom Brokaw put it, “We don’t just have egg on our face — we have an omelet all over our suit.” [1] Those of us following the election at that time remember the confusion and frustration associated with the conflicting information being reported. Finally it was determined that the election remained undecided, and that a recount was necessary.

Part of what contributed to the uncertainty of the election outcome (at its core a data quality problem) was the method through which votes were collected. The type of ballot used led, in many cases, to ballots with multiple punches, and many more with holes only partially punched, thus dubbed the “hanging chad.” The hanging chads made the intent of the voter’s choice unclear. Due to these anomalies, many (particularly Gore’s supporters) called for a recount of Florida’s votes. They wanted those doing the manual recount to carefully interpret the intention of the voter, based on the physical ballot.

Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush–that there should not be additional recounts, and he was inducted into office. Though many don’t think of it this way, this was a data quality scandal that never should have occurred in the first place.

As messy and controversial as the election was, the potential ramifications are far greater. Imagine if the election of 2000 cast doubt on every subsequently elected president. Imagine if citizens could not trust that the person sitting in the Oval Office had actually been fairly elected. What would that mean for that person’s term? What would it mean for our country? In short, imagine if the data quality of our entire election process was poor. Accurate and trustworthy data form the backbone upon which decisions as large as the next presidency rests—an important thing to consider as we move through this election season.

In elections, as in our personal and business lives, it is important to consider the accuracy and trustworthiness of the data upon which we base our decisions. Are you comfortable in relying upon the data that frames your most important decisions? If not—what can you do to change that?

[1] James Brokaw, “Hanging by a Chad—Or Not: The 2000 Presidential Election,” in The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Accessed August 15, 2016.

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