Friday, March 27, 2009

How NOT to conduct an election

I'm no longer an AERA (American Educational Research Association, for the uninitiated) member, so a friend passed this along to me. This went out to the AERA-J listserv (names removed to minimize further embarrassment ):

Dear Division J Members,

A week or so ago I wrote to you announcing XXX XXXX as the winner of the Division J Council Member-at-Large election. This week I have both the awkward task of telling you that there was an error in one stage of the ballot counting and the pleasant task of announcing that the ensuing recount revealed ZZZ ZZZZ as the winner of the election.

We congratulate ZZZ and look forward to her joining the Division J Council.

In the interest of transparency, let me explain what happened. AERA and Division J bylaws require that a form of the Hare system be used for counting ballots when there are more than two candidates for a position--even if there is only one position. We had four candidates. As implemented by AERA, the Hare system works like this: Voters rank candidates and the candidate with the fewest votes (fewest #1 rankings) in round 1 is eliminated. The votes of those who ranked the eliminated candidate number 1 are then given to the candidate they ranked number 2 and so on. The assumption is that if a voter's first ranked candidate is no longer available, he or she would want their vote to go to the person they ranked second.

For our election, this meant that we couldn't simply declare the person who got the most first place votes the winner. We had to go through the rounds, eliminating candidates and assigning votes, until all but two candidates remained.

The system is fairly simple once you see an example of how it is actually done. The description AERA uses is very confusing and appears to be for a situation that did not fit an election like our; if one is not familiar with the process, it can make your head spin. The members of our election committee (AAA AAAA, BBB BBBB and CCC CCCC), none of whom had previous experience with this system, were not entirely clear how to figure out who won and were unsure of their calculations. So we asked the AERA Central Office for assistance. They analyzed the data and declared XXX the winner. They sent us their calculations, but we weren't looking for errors. They told us they had done the analysis a couple of times and had a couple of people verify the results. We had no reason to question their numbers; they're the experts with this system. We also declared XXX the winner.

Then one of the candidates asked for the election results, which according to AERA policy a candidate has the right to do as long he or she agrees to keep the results confidential. In the process of preparing a report for the candidate, I noticed that an error had been made in allocating the votes of the first candidate eliminated. In a close election, correcting that error made a difference in the final outcome. The new results were obtained independently by me, two members of the election committee and by a staff member at AERA.

We are happy for ZZZ but feel very badly for making an error that casts doubts on the division's election process and puts Scott in a very awkward situation. It is hard enough to lose an election, let alone find out you lost after 1800 division members have been told you won. I accept full responsibility for the error. I should have checked and double checked the figures we got from AERA and I should have insisted that members of the election committee do so as well.

In the future, all Division J elections will be conducted by the independent firm that runs all AERA elections. As an organization of well-meaning volunteers, we are just not equipped to set up and run secure elections much less bear the responsibility of determining the outcome in situations like this one.

If you have any questions, I will be happy to try and answer them.




  1. What's that quote? "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”

    I'm not a member of AERA either -- I rejoined last year but when the renewal requests started showing up I felt no interest in rejoining. This is one more reason to keep throwing out those renewal notices!

  2. "In the future, all Division J elections will be conducted by the independent firm that runs all AERA elections."

    All I can think of is the nerdy guys in the tuxes at the Oscars who represent the accounting firm.

  3. Man, I really feel for that poor schmuck who got raked over the coals on this one... :-)

  4. Yeah, and he really is a poor shmuck too -- right, XXX?

  5. I am sure that I have no idea to whom you are referring. Yours faithfully, XXX.

  6. I'm sure XXX will be blogging about his experience with AERA.