Numbers Are Bad Liars

After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of Iran’s June 12 presidential election, protesters have been crying fraud. In a Washington Post op-ed, Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco claim that the truth lies in the digits of the vote count. Humans are bad at making up fraudulent numbers, they write, and the fact that the vote counts for the different provinces contain “too many 7’s and not enough 5’s in the last digit” and not enough non-adjacent digits points to made-up numbers. Iran’s election monitors, meanwhile, acknowledged that the number of votes exceeded the number of voters, but deny fraud. [%comments]

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  1. charles says:

    And our response is, sadly, tepid. Yes we can.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    Brilliant. Now I know how to fix national elections with greater finesse than Republican operative and Rove’s IT fixer Mike Connell, who (err,,,) died in an untimely plane crash before he could be subpoened to testify.

    Years ago a friend of mine took me to a used car lot where there were scores of used VW beetles. He told me to check the odometer. I saw that it had 76,000 miles more or less. He insisted I check another one. It had about 76,000 miles. And another and another…. They all had about 76,000 miles.

    Apparently the mechanic who was ordered to spin back the odometers using his electric drill was sending a plaintive message to honest buyers to avoid the place.

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  3. J. Daniel Smith says:


    1) What is to stop people (regimes) in the future from doing this type of analysis *before* releasing (fixing) the numbers?

    2) I’ll take 1/200 odds in the lottery any day.

    3) What happens when you run this analysis against other sets of “random” number such as digits of e, pi, stock prices, etc.?

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  4. cirby says:

    The easy way to beat this analysis is, of course, to randomly generate every digit after the first one.

    So if you want to win by 10,000 votes or more, just write down the “1” and randomize the other four, then subtract that number from the total possible votes.

    You can avoid the question of “where did those other three million votes come from?” Unless, of course, you’re a dictatorship that doesn’t really care if the people know you’re screwing around with the vote totals.

    Has anyone ever applied this analysis to the Florida 2000 vote counts? It could be the final nail in the coffin for the “Bush stole the vote” nuts.

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  5. charles says:


    It’s not so simple, so no worries, and I’m thinking the Kennedys or the Chicago mayoral royalty might be a better benchmark to shoot for.

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  6. Doctor Gonzo says:

    What is the U.S. response supposed to be? Invasion? Bombing? Sending in our military to install Mousavi?

    Iran is a sovereign nation. All we can do is express our desire for the truth to come out (and make our Twitter avatars green, since that will help a lot). We can’t do anything more without turning this into a nationalist, Iran vs. U.S. event that certainly won’t help progressive voices in Iran.

    Whenever people say we should be throwing our weight around when it comes to votes in other countries, I ask them this: if Iran, or Iraq, or China, or Venezuela, or pick-your-country came out forcefully against the fraud in the 2000 elections, would that make you less likely to support our country and more likely to think that they were right? Or would you view it as absurd meddling from a country that should mind its own business? Yeah, I thought so.

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  7. Kevin says:

    Cirby, there are plenty of things that went wrong procedurally which a statistical analysis wouldn’t catch. For example, it’s a problem when the person who makes the final judgement for the electoral votes of the state also actively campaigned for one of the candidates.

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  8. Nosybear says:

    Hey, if it’s good enough for Florida, it’s good enough for Iran.

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