Broward County canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg examines a disputed absentee ballot Saturday, Nov. 25, 2000; George W. Bush. (Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The Bush presidency was my fault: I am so sorry my work stopped the Florida recount
Fifteen years ago, a Florida judge cited my stats theory and the recount ended. The Iraq War still torments me
John Allen Paulos
salon.com | Sunday, Nov 29, 2015 05:59 AM EST
An example of an extremely significant, decidedly unintended result of a relatively tiny event can be nightmarish. This one is, at least for me. It concerns the role I played in getting George W. Bush elected president in 2000. That I was the butterfly whose fluttering cascaded into Bush’s election still pains me. I had written an op-ed for the New York Times titled “We’re Measuring Bacteria with a Yardstick” in which I argued that the vote in Florida had been so close that the gross apparatus of the state’s electoral system was incapable of discerning the difference between the candidates’ vote totals. Given the problems with the hanging chads, the misleading ballots (in retrospect, aptly termed “butterfly ballots”), the missing and military ballots, a variety of other serious flaws and the six million votes cast, there really was no objective reality of the matter.
Later when the Florida Supreme Court weighed in, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells cited me in his dissent from the majority decision of the rest of his court to allow for a manual recount of the undervote in Florida. Summarizing the legal maneuverings, I simply note that in part because of Wells’s dissent the ongoing recount was discontinued, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and George Bush was (s)elected president.
Specifically, Judge Wells wrote, “I agree with a quote by John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, when he wrote that, ‘the margin of error in this election is far greater than the margin of victory, no matter who wins.’ Further judicial process will not change this self-evident fact and will only result in confusion and disorder.” (Incidentally, the CNN senior political analyst at the time, Jeff Greenfield, cited the quote in his book on the 2000 presidential election, “Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow!,” and wrote, “The single wisest word about Florida was delivered not by a pundit but by mathematician John Allen Paulos.” I doubt, however, that Greenfield thought it was reason to stop the recount.)
John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University and the author of Innumeracy, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,and A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours. More John Allen Paulos.