Want to know what happened in Iran but need to take a break from the violence? FiveThirtyEight is applying their usual beautiful math and savvy to the situation.
Like most Americans, there are few things I would like to see more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hateful President, to be voted out of office. Elections in thuggish, authoritarian states like Iran need be treated with the utmost skepticism and scrutiny. I can’t say I have any real degree of confidence in the official results, which showed Ahmadinejad winning with some 62 percent of the vote.
There is a statistical analysis making the rounds, however, which purports to show overwhelmingly persuasive evidence that the Iranian election was rigged. I do not find this evidence compelling.
Although widespread allegations of fraud, manipulation, intimidation and other all too common elections tactics have been be common, statistically detecting fraud or manipulation is a challenge. For example, while mathematicians have been evaluating vote returns for irregularities in normal situational random number distribution , determining what the “correct” results should be is very difficult.
However, given the absolutely bizarre figures that have been given for several provinces, given qualitative knowledge – for example, that Mahdi Karroubi earned almost negligible vote totals in his native Lorestan and neighboring Khuzestan, which he won in 2005 with 55.5% and 36.7% respectively – there is room for a much closer look.
Ballen and Doherty are doing admirable and important work. Regular readers will know how difficult it is to conduct a good poll in the United States. Take that difficulty to the fifth power, and you’ll have some sense for how difficult it is to conduct a good poll in Iran.
Unfortunately, while the poll itself may be valid, Ballen and Doherty’s characterization of it is misleading. Rather than giving one more confidence in the official results, the poll raises more questions than it resolves.