Students Ask: Are Our Elections Fair?

Chicago High School students question the fairness of U.S. elections.

The students in Eric (Rico) Gutstein's math class over at SoJo -- Social Justice High School, a school born out of a 2001 hunger strike in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood -- have been "investigating social reality using mathematics," as Rico told me recently. That is, they are "learning good math and learning about the world. The realities we're studying this year: the elections, neighborhood displacement, the spread of AIDS in North Lawndale (a low-income Chicago neighborhood), the criminalization of youth/people of color, and the mathematics of sexism. The math itself is an eclectic blend of pre-calculus, probability/stats, discrete mathematics, algebra, with the emphasis on mathematical modeling of social reality."

Their unit on the mathematics of fair elections -- making use of the recent book by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count -- has ended just as the 2008 presidential campaign is ending, and the students, some of whom will be first-time voters in this election, were concerned enough about the evidence of fraud four years ago they wanted to tell the world.

Here is their editorial, written by the whole class, with Channing Redditt and Amy Maldonado the principle authors:


We are seniors at the Social Justice High School in Chicago, and in our math class, we have been working to understand whether or not something went wrong in the 2004 presidential election. We have used statistics, facts, and formulas to demonstrate that some of the election results did not happen by chance. During our analyses, we discovered that the differences between the exit polls (random confidential surveys done immediately after voting) and the recorded votes did not match. Although we expect some differences, due to sample variation, the numbers were mathematically improbable or basically impossible!

Exit poll results should be close to the recorded vote (as they have been in past elections). When this is not the case, we have a "poll difference" between the two. There is a 50/50 chance that the difference will favor one candidate or the other. We would have expected some to favor Bush and some to favor Kerry. But, according to Steven Freeman in his book, Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?, in the 10 battleground states, all 10 differences favored Bush. The chances of that happening are about 1 in 1,000. And across the US, in all 50 exit polls, 44 of the differences favored Bush, and only 6 favored Kerry. The chance of that happening is about 1 in 71,000,000--very close to zero. Our last point is that in Ohio, Kerry won the exit poll with 54.2%. But, as Freeman reports, in the actual vote, he only won 48.7%. The chance of that happening is about 1 in 1,000,000,000. Possible? You decide!

We do not know exactly what happened to explain why the exit polls were so far off in 2004. But we know that in the 2004 election, there were reports of votes flipping from Kerry to Bush, "undervotes" (where people did not vote for president but voted for other positions), polling stations with more votes counted than people registered, and many other very strange things with the electronic voting machines. We also know that there were fliers with false information about when to vote, long lines, not enough machines, and voter suppression.

Some of us are 18 and are voting for the first time. As first-time voters, we cannot stress enough how important it is to be educated about the past elections and the things that went wrong. Our class is writing this to inform everyone about previous problems in the elections and to warn people to watch for similar troubles. We want to ensure that in this election, the same problems do not occur. We are already seeing problems with voting this year. Be prepared to pressure your representatives and senators to immediately investigate and challenge the election if something appears wrong!

In this election, it is up to all of us to question the results and to hold officials accountable for fairness. If the vote changes on the electronic machine, call for assistance. Let your vote be counted for the candidate of your choice. Let your voice be heard, and don't settle for less!

Remember--it didn't happen by chance!