Big Labor's New Burglar Alarm for Election Fraud

The new science of winning campaigns
Nov. 6 2012 11:55 AM

Big Labor's New Burglar Alarm for Election Fraud

"I Voted" stickers at Battlefield High School in Gainesville, Virginia. The AFL-CIO thinks it can detect election fraud if the number of reported votes cast doesn't match regularly occuring patterns in nature.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

When election returns start flowing into the AFL-CIO’s boiler room tonight, analysts will be looking to see where Big Labor’s preferred candidates can claim victory. But they’ll also be monitoring whether the digits in vote totals follow a natural logarithmic distribution, part of a newly-developed election-fraud detection system that AFL officials say they modeled on the math-heavy protocols that credit-card companies and the IRS use to catch cheats.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

“What this is doing is looking at the numbers,” says Mike Podhorzer, the AFL’s political director. “Not whether the candidates are hitting the numbers we thought they were going to hit but looking at the numbers themselves.”


The system, designed by senior political strategist Matt Lackey, is based on Benford’s law, a mathematical principle that states that the first digits of numbers are distributed steadily in nature. In most organically produced sets of numbers, from baseball statistics to the areas of rivers, the ratio of whose (for example) first digit is 7 to those whose first digit is 4 should remain constant. A math and economics major before dropping out of Purdue in his senior year, Lackey says he has had Benford’s law on his mind since college. “It shows up in math textbooks once it gets to the point where it’s all weirdos taking those classes,” he explains. Lackey entered politics after stumbling into a job as Barack Obama’s Indiana voter-file manager during the 2008 campaign.

Lackey analyzed past election returns, and realized that the total number of votes cast per precinct adhered to the same natural progression. There were roughly three times as many precincts whose number of total votes cast started with a 2 as with a 6. Over the last couple of months, Lackey wrote code that could automatically assess the ratio of first digits appearing in the real-time election returns that the AFL receives from the Associated Press. “It became something to think about while the servers were working on other stuff,” he says.

Tonight, Lackey and his colleagues in the AFL’s analytics department will be checking on charts that should appear as a clean slope if the digits in vote totals occur in the same ratios they are expected to appear in nature. “We can detect when things are or are not natural,” says Lackey. “If you’ve got a big analytics shop, it’s not hard to get them to do one more thing, if it’s looking at a graph and saying does it look like a slalom?”

When the IRS sees numbers that don’t follow that slope, it puts up red flags calling into question whether the returns that produced them were honest. The AFL will search for places where abnormal patterns may be clustered, like those in a county or municipality where a common election authority may have tampered with the results. “You’re not going to pick up an individual voting twice,” Podhorzer says. “The thing that most election administrators don’t realize is that the returns are going to follow a natural pattern. If they’re not following a natural pattern it’s because someone changed them.”

Any abnormalities they find will feed into the AFL’s media and legal departments, who will use it to draw attention to areas where fraud may have occurred. “It doesn’t mean it’s airtight proof that there’s something the matter. It provides a warning system that before winners are decided, have a reason to look at that particular precinct or county for some kind of reason it was that way,” says Podhorzer. “It’s a burglar alarm. The fact that it was tripped doesn’t mean someone is coming in through the ductwork.”



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?