Is Benford's right to election data applicable

A remedy against creative election result design

Elections can now be checked even better using new verification procedures. They should be used.

The discussion about falsification of election results is multifaceted. After the events of 2016, Austrians are burned children. The verdict of the Constitutional Court and the mishaps in the electoral organization shocked many. And we are not alone with these worries.

There are repeated indications that there should have been irregularities in the presidential elections in the USA, with speculation about crude election falsification as well as clever tricks of the statistical processing of numbers. The OSCE, the UN and also the EU endeavor to ensure with their own missions that elections are carried out freely, fairly, justly and correctly. Electoral authorities endeavor to eliminate sources of error as far as possible by constantly improving the electoral laws.

The systematic sloppiness that was made aware in Austria in 2016 naturally has the potential to falsify results. The decision of the Constitutional Court and the ordeal up to the successful election of the head of state were paved with embarrassing mishaps, glue and envelope errors and a climate of sloppiness in the authorities.

Detection through forensics

Far away from the process organization of the election process - from the creation of the election lists to the election process to the counting of the votes - a separate science of electoral forensics has developed in recent years, which derives significant statements about the correctness of the numbers from the statistical properties of series of numbers. Research centers in this area are the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich as well as selected research institutes in Israel and the USA.

Statistical methods that examine series of numbers from election results can be used with comparable accuracy to the forensic efforts to uncover falsified accounts in the field of white-collar crime. Benford's Law exposed the remarkably “creative” accounting at Enron and Worldcom, through which management had cheated investors out of their deposits.

Advances in computer science

Statistical procedures such as the Benford law but also the chi-square test and the Kolmogorow-Smirnow test provided clear indications for considerable irregularities in the federal elections in Germany years ago. But not only Germany, but also Iran, Turkey and the USA are repeatedly associated with election fraud.

If the legal repair of open grievances is relatively easy to accomplish using international experience, changing the culture of dealing and administration represents the greater challenge.

But it is more demanding to give election results - also from a forensic point of view - a seal of approval. Here it is important to take into account the findings of sophisticated statistical methods and to use the inner properties of series of numbers in their logarithmic derivation to show indications for “creative number design”.

The literature on election fraud from this title is extensive and not new either. Thanks to advances in computer science, such models have only become easier to implement. Politicians are currently under the spell of digitization. Together with the knowledge of big data and its possibilities for interpretation, completely new questions arise for elections. The interface between the counting process and the electronic recording and processing of numbers should be illuminated.

On election evenings, the voter witnesses the “high priests” of the model design appearing on television. The supreme electoral authority should, however, remain the government agency, which must be able to carry out its task without being influenced.

In Switzerland, the 2007 National Council election was scientifically examined for statistical abnormalities - with the result that there were none. How about a trial in Austria, too, in order to refute allegations and remove the ground from any conspiracy theories?

Remove all doubts

Investing in democracy sometimes also means the need to review electoral processes under the new verification procedures. Everyone involved in the political process is united by the desire for fair, correct and accurate elections. Doubts should be dispelled by all means.

In July 2016, research by the US daily newspaper "Washington Post", together with statisticians from the universities of Maryland and Michigan, reported that they had examined the election results of the first round of the runoff election for the federal president in May 2016. The studies revealed minor anomalies in Vienna, but overall manipulation is not to be suspected.

The Ministry of the Interior's official responsible for elections in Austria also said at the time that one could never claim that elections were perfect and safe from forgery. Falsification of elections in Austria is unlikely.

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Dr. Bernhard Löhri, (* 1953) graduated from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, where he was chairman of the student body from 1975 to 1977. From 1992 to 1996 he was director of the Political Academy of the ÖVP, later advisor to EU authorities. He was repeatedly involved in election monitoring processes as an expert on EU missions.

("Die Presse", print edition, October 12, 2017)