Election results: When numbers lie

Many people went to sleep with high hopes for a new beginning, only to find out in the morning that their dreams had been shattered.

By AVI SILBERSCHATZ
March 23, 2015 22:20
2 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST,JPOST STAFF)

 
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At 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, the three major television stations released the results of the exit polls. These turned out to be quite different from the actual results. The nation and the world were decidedly misled. The speeches were presented based on erroneous information.

Many people went to sleep with high hopes for a new beginning, only to find out in the morning that their dreams had been shattered.

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Had the television stations been a bit more patient, and waited a few more hours, the reported outcome would have been significantly different. The world press would not have had discrepant coverage and champagne bottles would not have been opened.

How could this have happened? How can we ensure that this will never happen again? Mimicry of the US system of reporting election results is the answer to the problem.

In the US, where the exit polls are conducted quite differently from the way the Israeli system works, the predictions are based on two different parameters – the exit polls and the actual counts. In the event that the exit poll’s results are indicating a high probability that a candidate has won, the television station will announce the winner based on their observation.

In the case where the exit poll data is insufficient to make a clear determination, the prediction of the winner is deferred until the information obtained from the actual election can be used in combination with the exit poll data to ascertain a winner.

What appears to have happened on Tuesday night is that the exit poll data was not indicative of reality.



Unfortunately, either the sample of voters utilized was biased or they lied in the exit polls. The fault may lie in the methodology used in Israel for collecting exit poll data.

In order to avoid a repeat of the situation we witnessed on Tuesday night, the Israeli system has to be modified. If the exit poll methodology does not change, we will all be better off waiting a bit longer to hear the accurate outcome. It is better to have responsible coverage, albeit a bit slower, than a hasty report of inaccurate information.

The author is the Sidney J. Weinberg Professor and Chair of Computer Science at Yale University.

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