Minnesota Senate Recount: The First Quantum Election?

The American public, the national media, and even the Minnesota Secretary of State, all seem to agree with Albert Einstein, who famously said, “God doesn’t play dice.” Most scientists, however, now believe that Einstein was wrong on this particular point. Reluctantly, physical scientists have accepted that there are some things we can’t ever know for sure. And maybe the Minnesota Senate election of 2008 is one of those things.

Einstein’s oft-repeated quote refers to his distaste for quantum mechanics, its probabilistic nature, and its long-term implications about what we can ever hope to know. In the world of classical physics, first described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, every physical event is ultimately knowable and predictable, if we have enough time and information. If we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at any physical situation, we’ll be able to eventually describe it exactly and predict what will happen next.

In the world of quantum physics, first explored theoretically in the early 20th century, different rules prevail. And the implications of these rules are often counter-intuitive, paradoxical, and downright unaesthetic. Even when we look long enough, hard enough, smart enough, and close enough at some physical situations, we still can’t know everything. There is uncertainty that we will never be able to resolve. It’s not just a matter of “margin of error” due to our skill at making measurements. It’s a more fundamental uncertainty, and it’s described by the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.”

Werner Heisenberg, in 1927, stated that we can’t know both the exact location and exact speed of a small particle, like an electron. (Actually, scientists usually refer to “momentum” instead of “speed,” but these quantities are related to each other.) The very act of precisely measuring the location, for example, will yield a range of speeds for the electron. Or, vice versa, the very act of precisely measuring the speed of an electron will yield a range of locations. If we repeat the observation a number of times, we’ll get a variety of different answers. The only way to describe the system accurately is with a “probability cloud” for the electron.

In the “normal” world in which we live, these quantum effects are so tiny and are averaged out over so many particles and events, that we will never observe any differences between the world as described by quantum mechanics and the world described by classical mechanics. However, when we dive into a nano-world where we no longer look at the aggregate result—where we look instead at the tiny individual particle or event—we start to see quantum effects.

But what does this have to do with the U.S. Senate?

Let’s replace the word “electron” with the word “election”—we’re just changing one letter.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Elections, by analogy, tells us that at the micro-level, there is a fundamental uncertainty that we can’t ever dispel. The quantum election principle states that you can’t truly know the winner of the election, because there isn’t one true vote count, there is just a probability cloud of final tallies. Every time an observer goes into the voting system at the most micro of levels (for example, looking at each individual ballot and at the circumstances surrounding the casting of that individual ballot), the observer will come out with a different vote count. The very act of counting the votes introduces a fundamental uncertainty into the system.

Up until now, this principle has only been of theoretical relevance. With the Minnesota Senate recount, however, we are seeing the first experimental evidence of this principle in action.

No matter how many times we count the Minnesota Senate votes, no matter how close we look at each ballot, no matter how transparent the election process, no matter how unbiased the election officials, we can’t know the “true” winner. In fact, there is no such thing as a “true” winner.

So what do we do? Some have suggested that we flip a coin once and declare a winner who will occupy the Senate seat for the next six years. But I have a better solution.

Let’s flip a coin every morning and declare a “Senator-for-the-day.” If we really want to reflect the “will of the people,” the daily coin flip is a much better reflection of “reality.”

And wouldn’t it make for interesting politics? Maybe we’d finally achieve something closer to the mythical “bipartisanship” we seem to need in this time of crisis.

I believe we are going to be seeing more and more elections just as close as the Minnesota Senate election of 2008. Well-financed and sophisticated campaigns can fine tune their candidates’ positions to match focus group results and tracking poll data on an increasingly local level—from gerrymandering individual districts to tailoring mailings by individual zip codes to robo-calling individual phone numbers.

It’s time to recognize that, in Minnesota, we are experiencing the first quantum election. It’s time for political scientist departments to add courses on “quantum elections” to the current curricula, which only reflect the world of “classical elections.” It’s time for talking heads to bone up on their quantum theory.

And perhaps it’s time to introduce a “Heisenberg Uncertainty Amendment” to the Constitution.

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Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. No it isn’t. The following statements have a true or false value:

    * More people’s last intended vote (where anyone who choose randomly’s intended vote is the choice they came upon randomly) was Al Franken than Norm Coleman.
    * More people’s last actual vote (where a vote is determined by the ballot and the standards set forth by the Minnesota Canvassing Board) was for Al Franken than Norm Coleman.*
    * More properly registered people’s last actual vote (where a vote is determined by the ballot and the standards set forth by the Minnesota Canvassing Board) was for Al Franken than Norm Coleman.*

    And those truths or falsities are important. Even if you thought that quantum uncertainty was only epistemic, you’d certainly think that, for our science and use, the actual truth or falsity of a certain quantum state isn’t so important. (Right? You’re more a scientist than I.)

    Now, there are problems of missing ballots, overcounted ballots, undercounted ballots, improperly rejected absentees, improperly accepted absentees and so on. There is an epistemic issue about whether the outcome of any particular COUNT reflects any of the vote totals. But that’s the same kind of uncertainty we get in classical mechanics. We just need better instruments if we want to fix that. Can we do that for electron positions? And there’s a pair of epistemic issues about whether the count and the vote reflect the will of the voters and the will of the people, but those are familiar problems: cf. butterfly ballots and low-voter turnout.

    *: There might be a couple undeterminable votes by the MSCB standards. So unless the vote was actually close by only, say, a swing of 10, these statements are true or false.

  2. […] The Second Quantum Election? In a blog post in mid-February, I introduced my (mostly tongue-in-cheek) theory that the Franken-Coleman election for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota is the very first “quantum election.” […]


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