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Aaron Goode Election by coin flip may be the least bad option in Stratford

February 28, 2019

A quagmire is defined as an extraordinarily dismal situation that all of the available options for extraction would probably just make worse. The term aptly describes last November’s election for the 120th Connecticut House of Representatives district in Stratford, where an egregious error by elections officials resulted in 70 votes being cast in the wrong voting district, in an election where the margin of victory (for Democratic incumbent Phil Young) was 14 votes.

Similar instances of gross incompetence and mismanagement by election officials have occurred elsewhere in Connecticut but not with the same dire consequences. In Derby it was discovered last year that 30 to 40 voters had been voting in the wrong state assembly district for three election cycles because of a failure by the municipality to update poll books after the last redistricting, producing the awkward spectacle of a major-party nominee who thought she lived in the district finding out halfway through the campaign that she actually lived outside of it; and a similar instance in Hamden where 25 households on Paradise Avenue were discovered to have been casting ballots in the wrong district for multiple elections. These other mishaps are deeply troubling — and, for perspective, they both involved more voters than have ever been prosecuted for “voter impersonation fraud” in Connecticut — but unlike Stratford neither resulted in an election where the outcome is completely and irredeemably flawed and no legitimate winner can be determined, which is clearly the case when the number of false ballots exceeds the margin of victory by a factor of five.

The obvious illegitimacy of the Stratford result has produced some curious responses, from strained efforts at mathematically reconstructing the election by inferring voters’ intent, to ignoring or downplaying the problem altogether. As for the former, attempts to reconstruct the 120th election by deducing the intentions of voters whose ballots were counted in the wrong district based on their neighbors’ voting patterns is an interesting academic exercise for graduate students in political science but cannot be taken seriously as a method for awarding seats in the state Legislature. And as for the latter, anyone who still supposes the 120th District election is valid, as some members of the Legislature’s Committee on Contested Elections apparently do, probably thinks the shocking missed pass interference in the NFC Championship Game was a totally fine call by the refs — move along, nothing to see here!

After calling multiple witnesses and hearing hours of testimony, the bipartisan Committee on Contested Elections deadlocked on how to proceed and punted the problem to the full General Assembly. Now what? There are no good options for resolving the 120th quagmire, but that doesn’t mean some of the terrible options available to the Legislature are not clearly worse than others.

Pretending the election was legitimate and seating the apparent winner (Young) would be tossing acid on the foundations of the social contract and our allegedly sacred democracy. Why bother voting at all if we simply uphold the results of botched elections, and those responsible for botching them are not fired or even reprimanded?

Seating nobody in the 120th is unacceptable as it would leave more than 20,000 residents of Stratford without representation in the General Assembly. The ostensibly obvious “solution” of holding a new election is problematic, as some member of the Committee on Contested Elections correctly argued, because special election turnout is typically below 20 percent, sometimes below 10 percent, and demographically unrepresentative of general election turnout, as those who typically turn out in special elections are considerably more affluent and less diverse than the electorate who voted in the midterms last fall.

Calling for a new election is to invite the de facto disenfranchisement of hundreds if not thousands of voters. The League of Women Voters and Common Cause have called for a partial new election, that is, only re-running the election in the affected voting districts (about 700 voters), which would minimize but not eliminate the problem of reduced turnout, disfiguring the electorate into something totally unrepresentative of the original election. A partial do-over also holds down the cost of administering a complete new election.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, the least bad option may be the most primitive and least expensive of all: flipping a coin. Doing so may violate our historically uninformed assumption that democratic elections must be “won,” but in fact it has been the preferred method for hundreds if not thousands of years for resolving elections where a winner cannot be determined (in the case of ties); and in fact certain democracies (e.g. some city-states in Ancient Greece) have historically elected public officials by lot, the same way we seat juries, a procedure known as sortition. More importantly, flipping a coin does not impute popular legitimacy to a particular winner where there is none, and it does not indulge in the fantasy that any election can ever be successfully re-created, either by mathematical inference or by taking a mulligan.

When faced with a quagmire, do no harm. In this case the least harm is calling heads or tails and accepting the unsatisfying but fair result, then making sure that election oversight is improved, particularly at polling places with multiple voting districts, so that we never find ourselves in this quagmire ever again.

Aaron Goode is co-chair of the League of Women Voters or New Haven/West Haven.