How bad design led to a lost decade

First, I’m away on vacation (hence the scarce number of posts) and am consumed writing a few chapters for a couple of books that I’m contributing to – more on those in the near future I hope.

In the interim, I became profoundly depressed this morning after reading the passage below. I’m certain that history will look back at the Bush presidency as a “lost decade” when not only did the economy go off the rails and America’s standing in the world plummeted, but hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and billions were wasted in Iraq, human rights were hurled decades backwards and the benefits and progress of work in the humanities and sciences were put on hold (and in many cases, simply wasted).

Thinking these thoughts can itself be depressing. But this excerpt made it worse:

If you’re still unconvinced that design can have consequences beyond the carport and cutting board, point your memory back to the 2000 U.S. presidential elections and the thirty-six-day snarl over whether Al Gore or George W. Bush won the most votes in Florida. That election and its aftermath may seem like a bad dream today. But buried in that brouhaha was an important, and mostly ignored, lesson…

…According to an exhaustive examination of all of Florida’s ballots that several newspapers and academics conducted a year after the election-and whose findings were largely lost amid the coverage of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks and utterly forgotten after Bush’s 2004 reelection-what determined who won the U.S. presidency was the infamous butterfly ballot that voters in Palm Beach county used to mark their choice for President. In Palm Beach County – a heavily Democratic enclave populated by tens of thousands of elderly Jewish voters – ultraconservative fringe candidate Pat Buchanan recieved 3,407 votes, three times as many votes as he did in any other county in the state. (According to one statistical analysis, if the voting pattern of the state’s other sixty-six counties had held in Palm Beach, Buchanan would have won only 603 votes.) What’s more, 5,237 Palm Beach County voters marked ballots for both Al Gore and Pat Buchanan, and therefore had their ballots invalidated. Bush carried the entire state by 537 votes.

Less well known is the ballot in Duval County in which the presidential ballot showed five candidates on one page and another five candidates on the next page, along with instructions to “vote every page.” In that county, 7,162 Gore ballots were tossed out because voters selected two candidates for President. Had the instructions been clearer, Duval County, too, would have provided Gore the margin of victory.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel H. Pink

Design does matter. In this case, poor design costs America (and much of the world) a decade of progress and, possibly, countless billions (if not trillions).

3 thoughts on “How bad design led to a lost decade

  1. David Humphrey

    I can never understand why this stuff is so hard. Between each vote there are many years in which to design, test, and iterate on a ballot. We literally have years to pilot test it with as many real people as you can imagine. Take the wasted money that went into electronic voting and use that to fund the development. We know how to build all sorts of things that “can't fail” and do. Why wait until it matters so much to test our designs properly? The fate of the US, and therefore the world, shouldn't be a side effect of us figuring out how to do this properly. There is enough time to get this right, and that we don't, is shameful.

  2. tpurves

    heh, I think that you let of too lightly the other 49.99999% of the American voting population that day that did, in full knowledge, without error, deliberately cast their vote for bush. I think that's the real tragedy of the story, what the hell *they* were thinking we may never know. and they did it twice!The design issue was a real one but it could have happened in any county. (if every county has a different system, what are the odds of at least some of them not screwing it up?)From a mathematical/statistical perspective the election was a clear tie, well within any reasonably expectable margin for error in such a large process.The real design problem was what the hell was wrong with the Democratic party's campaign. Against Bush, even in 2000, how did they fail to not sway *millions* more voters rather than only 500 befuddled Floridians? but yes, the way the dice just happened to land in this case, two dumb design failures could possibly have saved the US and the world a lost decade. Though really the ramifications will be around a lot longer than that. (Remember that the whole debacle in Iraq and many other places can be traced back to arbitrary compromises and lines drawn on maps in 1919/1920…)

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