Human Error Has Always Happened in Election Tabulation

Human Error Has Always Happened in Election Tabulation

In their book Human Error: Cause, Prediction, and Reduction, John W. Senders and Nevile P. Moray define human error as something “not intended by the actor; not desired by a set of rules or an external observer; or that led the task or system outside its acceptable limits.” There are many ways to commit human error and a number have been catalogued. We might commit errors in problem detection, diagnosis, planning and execution. We might mischaracterize the level of analysis required to assess and address a problem. We might erroneously or unreflectively rely on certain equipment. We might commit groupthink. Latent human errors are human errors can be made as a result of systems or routines that are formed in such a way that humans are likely to make such errors. Research in ergonomics shows that adverse psychological states, physical and mental limitations, and coordination or communication quality all factor into the likelihood of latent human errors. 

Oftentimes, we can rely on technology to mitigate such mistakes. Take data appending services like our client Accurate Append, for example. Among other services, Accurate Append offers phone appending to help build out robust databases and minimize human error.

It’s the nature of extremist politics, however, to conflate human error with intentional conspiracy. Amid an endless spew of conspiracy-mongering and controlled rumoring by the Trump campaign in the wake of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s presidential election win, there appears a common theme: the “system” is “rigged.” Ghostly images of truckfulls of (presumably forged) ballots; claims that election officials and vote-counters purposely threw out or altered votes; the allegation that warehouses full of late-arriving ballots favored the Biden-Harris campaign: all these rumors and charges suggest intentionality, and an insistence that nefarious things happened in the election because of nefarious people. 

Take the case of ballot error-spotting in Michigan during the counting of presidential votes, for example. In Oakland County, election officials reported unofficial counts before spotting an error they had made. They had counted one city, Rochester, twice. The county had used software to help count (though not the Dominion software the far-right is talking about), but that wasn’t the problem. The issue lay in how election officials had been trained on and had oriented themselves around the software. 

When people like Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel call for election probes into Michigan without offering proof, they may refer to errors that were made and then corrected. They may point to unexplainable irregularities. They may even vaguely allude to voter suppression efforts for which they themselves are responsible. Regardless, they are cognitively framing errors and irregularities as intentional acts of conspiracy. 

In another instance of human error, employees at Detroit satellite voting locations forgot to enter ballots’ dates of receipt into the Qualified Voter File (the state’s election computer system). The actual ballots were stamped with the date they were received, however, and election officials declared it was an easily remediable “clerical error”. McDaniel accused election officials of “backdating” ballots when fixing these errors. 

Intentional manipulation of the electoral process is a security issue, not a human error issue, latent or otherwise. And where security is concerned — despite talk of lax measures — it was superior in 2020 than 2016. Four years of public-private partnership in security methods meant technology was upgraded, information was shared, resiliency plans were enacted and redundancy was established. As a result, the 2020 election was very successful if measured in the amount of disruption. Some new measures guarded against human error too: in Chesterfield County, Virginia, a utilities crew accidentally cut a cable rendering voter registration databases inaccessible to county election officials. Early voters were given provisional ballots to be checked against voters’ registration confirmation. 

This isn’t to say that human error is the only error in elections. The 2000 Florida election debacle resulted from mistaken reliance on machines counting glitchy ballots (the ones with hanging chads that sometimes prevented accurate counting) as well as the confusing nature of the butterfly ballot — an “error” on the part of the designers of the ballot. A recent article in Governing notes that New York state had relied on a “cut-and-add process” where individual jurisdictions download ballot counts onto flash drives, then sent to a central computer for counting. That process created a scenario in 2010 where 200,000 uncounted votes were found a month after the 2010 election.

But without direct evidence of harmful intent, we must assume any 2020 errors were human errors. They can be egregious, and they can seriously impede the process, but they cannot be seen as deliberate unless we can demonstrate that they are. Why, therefore, do people jump the gun and declare mistakes to be malicious? It turns out that when support for certain people or causes leads to strong group cohesion, those who identify with said group are more likely to attribute harmful intent or read conspiracy into human error. Recently three researchers from University College London published the results of a study in group cohesion and the attribution of harmful intent in “conspiracy” thinking. It was group cohesion, the authors concluded, that locks people into attributing harmful intent. In other words, the more people mobilize behind charismatic leaders or ideological extremes, for example, the more likely they are to attribute harmful intent as guiding others’ actions. 

Boredom also plays a role in spreading conspiracy theories. More accurately, according to another team of researchers from London, when boredom and paranoia combine, conspiracy theories are spread more often. This makes sense in the case of fraud claims in the 2020 election: the purveyors of many of conspiracies seem to have a lot of time on their hands. 

One thinks, of course, about Richard Hoffstater’s groundbreaking and still accurate 1964 piece, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The author writes: “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind . . . It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

There may be a time, in some distant future, where the paranoid style melts away and people see human error for what it is — a much more forgiving time indeed. But 2020 is not that time.