Much is being made of the election between Republican State Supreme Court Justice Prosser and Democrat Kloppenburg. On election night a quick count of votes was made and released immediately to the media. This count showed Kloppenburg ahead by about 200 votes out of some million-and-a-half cast.
The election was of interest because of the contretemps involving left-leaning state employee unions (who say their members aren’t provided sufficient benefits and who want the right to collectively bargain on this point), a right-leaning Governor (who wants to reduce the state’s deficit by not increasing the state employee benefits as fast as has been done historically), and Democrats in the legislature who fearfully fled the state to forestall legislation.
To emphasize their point, some in the unions, or their supporters, threatened (mostly anonymously) various Republicans with death, destruction, desecration, etc. The media chose not to emphasize the violent nature of these threats, doubtless believing they were not representative, and perhaps because the media recalled their behavior in the Gabrielle Giffords Tucson shooting.
The media instead sought to turn the election into what they call a “national referendum,” which to them meant that this local election was indicative of the mood of the rest of the country. So when it first appeared that Kloppenburg won, the media began running stories claiming victory for Kloppenburg and their referendum.
In spite of media hopefulness, some pointed out that a contest with such a narrow margin was not much of a referendum and was instead an indication that the populace was evenly split.
Then came the press conference from Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus who explained that an error had been made and that, after correcting it, Justice Prosser was the victor by some 7,000 votes (via HotAir).
Two things are significant. The method of data collection and the behavior of reporters.
I always tell my students and clients that eighty-percent of any data analysis project is spent in data preparation. Almost universally, people believe that their data is “ready to go”, has no errors, or is otherwise unproblematic. The opposite is nearly always true. Errors abound.
In Wisconsin, they gave Excel spreadsheets to precincts to fill out. The precincts were not supposed to meddle with the spreadsheets except to input data, after which they were to return the spreadsheets to headquarters where they would be read into an Access database. The process was done by hand at each level.
Naturally, some people could not help themselves and added extraneous columns and data into the spreadsheets. This always happens. If you have explicit instructions that the data in a cell can only, under penalty of torture, be coded “Y” or “N”, there will always be found someone who will write “Y but only because…” or “Not sure” or God knows what.
The creativity of humans in lousing up instructions is infinite. So it is no surprise, none whatsoever, that errors were made in Wisconsin, especially in the heat of battle and by clerks anxious to release results to the media.
Some in the media took the updated results like a man, but the dejection in many of their voices was evident when asking Nickolaus “How?” and “Are you absolutely sure…?” Earlier, I argued that all journalists should preface their questions by naming their party affiliation or by admitting who they wanted to win, e.g., “Bob Boberts, ABC, Democrat, Kloppenburg hopeful. Do you think…?”
This begins interrogations on a fair footing. Both the questioner and questionee know who is who, and more importantly, so do the audience. It also saves reporters from having to falsely claim objectivity and thus weaken their souls.
But notice what has happened. By insisting on the national-referendum theme and then prematurely touting it, the press are stuck with it. They are now in the position of saying (perhaps tacitly) that Prosser’s victory is important for the country. The pain many reporters are feeling must be extraordinary.
The vote objectively indicates an even split in the temperament of the populace, just as it did when the media thought Kloppenburg won. Yet that story has been eclipsed by the horse-race referendum, a theme many would have missed had the press not focused so much attention on it. I wonder if they cover this subject in J-school?
If you liked this, you’ll also like this: The California Federation Of Teachers Meet: A Play In One Act.